Never Seduce a Scot by Maya Banks

Never Seduce a Scot by Maya BanksNever Seduce a Scot by Maya Banks
Narrator: Kirsten Potter
Series: The Montgomerys and Armstrongs #1
Published by Tantor Media on 9/25/12
Genres: Historical, Romance
Format: Audiobook
four-stars

 

Story: B+
Narration: A-

Once Upon a Time…:

There was a little girl who liked to be told stories that transported her to another world… and every now and again I find an audiobook that reminds of that joy I felt as a child at being read to. The fact that this audiobook was nominated for an Audie award in the romance category as well as its place as the first in a new series whose second book (soon to be released) piqued my interest prompted me to pick it up. I’m glad I did because I enjoyed this audiobook tremendously. Through much of the book, I felt a lot like a kid who was sitting down for story-time at the library (erm, not during the sexy bits though) – including moments when I talked back to the “reader” of the book as I got caught up in the story and couldn’t help myself.

In a Land Far Over the Mountains and Across the Ocean:

“Eveline Armstrong is fiercely loved and protected by her powerful clan, but outsiders consider her “touched.” Beautiful, fey, with a level, intent gaze, she doesn’t speak. No one, not even her family, knows that she cannot hear. Content with her life of seclusion, Eveline has taught herself to read lips and allows the outside world to view her as daft. But when an arranged marriage into a rival clan makes Graeme Montgomery her husband, Eveline accepts her duty -unprepared for the delights to come. Graeme is a rugged warrior with a voice so deep and powerful that his new bride can hear it, and hands and kisses so tender and skilled that he stirs her deepest passions. Graeme is intrigued by the mysterious Eveline, whose silent lips are ripe with temptation and whose bright, intelligent eyes can see into his soul. As intimacy deepens, he learns her secret. But when clan rivalries and dark deeds threaten the wife he has only begun to cherish, the Scottish warrior will move heaven and earth to save the woman who has awakened his heart to the beautiful song of a rare and magical love.” – blurb via Goodreads

There Lived a Princess:

There’s a lot in this story that’s reminiscent of Disney-version fairy tales like Cinderella and Snow White. The persecuted heroine (take your pick from: Eveline fears marriage to a brute of a suitor who terrorized her; within her own clan she’s scorned by some for her seeming lack of faculties; after marriage to the chief of her clan’s mortal enemies she’s reviled for being an Armstrong as well as simple, etc.) eventually finds her prince in a castle (OK, a Scottish keep if you want to be picky), faces the hatred and mistrust of the keep’s women (evil step-sisters, anyone?), is set to work at menial tasks (including floor scrubbing), is kidnapped and rescued by her “prince”, and lives happily ever after.

Who Found Her Prince:

Although Graeme Montgomery is laird of his clan and a fierce warrior, he’s nothing but gentle and understanding when it comes to Eveline: traits I find uncommon in a romance hero outside of a beta hero construct, which Graeme definitely isn’t. The conflict in the story is primarily external to the relationship between the two. Graeme and Eveline both want to find a way to make their pairing work – initially because neither blames the other for their forced marriage or the history of war between their clans and eventually because they fall in love. It’s clan vs. clan conflict, Eveline struggling for acceptance by the Montgomery women, and the late-in-the-game appearance of an evil-doer that drives the story.

Until a Curse Came Between Them:

Eveline made a pretty stupid decision several years previously (for mostly understandable reasons) and is trying to find a way out of the consequences of that choice. That’s part of why she seems so young to me. Add to that the resistance and mocking she receives from the women of the keep and there’s a certain feel of grade school bullying that adds to my impression of her as very young and naive. It also sets her up as a very sympathetic protagonist. Since the story starts with her being pushed out of the protective arms of her family by marriage to Graeme, we meet her at the point at which she’s starting to grow up and trying to make the best of what she’s been handed. She has the requisite “plucky” moments but overall, her arc of character development was very enjoyable.

And Evil Swept Her Out of the Arms of the Prince, who Strove Mightily to Rescue her:

The tension ratchets up at the end of the story as Eveline finally has to contend with her long-ago suitor who is intent on preventing the Armstrongs and Montgomerys from uniting through the marriage and although the ending is never in doubt, several plot threads are tied up nicely and there’s a very smooth setup for the next book in the series.

And They All Lived Happily Ever After:

Really, I just found this to be a sweet story with very likable protagonists who are pitted against outside conflict but who triumph over adversity and find their HEA. Close family interaction – one of my favorite ingredients in romances – combined with a youthful heroine who teased a ghost of protectiveness from me and a caring hero who doesn’t act like an asshat left me with a happy smile on my face when I finished this one… within 12 hours after starting it.

The Narration (aka “I’m Sure I Could Stretch the Fairytale Structure of the Review Sections to Include a Bard but…”):

Also in aid of leaving me with the impression of sitting down to be enthralled with a tale is Kirsten Potter’s delivery. Within a very clear and measured narrative is also an impeccable sense of timing that paces the story perfectly to maximize listener engagement during action-heavy sections and allow more quiet and contemplative reflection with scenes of softer emotion. The one delivery point with which I take issue is during sex scenes. That niggle about the narration kicked off a broader set of thoughts for me so although my discussion of what bothered me takes up a lot of page space, please be aware that it was a very minor thing. The narration was excellent overall and I absolutely recommend the audiobook version.

Romance is most often written in such a way as to make sex scenes (pardon the expression) the climax of the book or at least make it the linchpin of a character arc that’s been building for a while. Because structurally the story is peaking at that point in terms of pacing and emotional build-up, the addition of strong vocal dramatics such as overt breathiness or really ramping up the intensity of the delivery usually pushes it too far over the top for me. In general, subtle will always work better at those moments and Ms. Potter is close the least subtle narrator during sex scenes that I’ve heard. (You can and should take that with a grain of salt, however, since I skip the more theatrical narrators entirely.) Of course, attempts at straight analysis aside, it may also be that I’m a typically prudish American who feels uncomfortable if you’re talking too loudly about sex. ;-)

In a generic reflection on narrators/narration and romance audiobooks, I sometimes wonder how much narrators with formal training as stage actors have to work to pull back their performance in recognition of the fact that the audience is no longer twenty plus feet away from their voice but rather, in the case of earphones, mere millimeters. It also occurs to me that a narrator of a romance title who prefers to work with a different genre may (incorrectly, I would argue) perceive sex scenes as the point of the story and so maximize their emphasis there unnecessarily.

But enough of that. Back to the actual narration! I wouldn’t know an authentic Scottish accent if it walked up behind me and whispered sweet nothings in my ear (although I wouldn’t mind an opportunity to test that theory) but the accent Ms. Potter employed worked well with the caveat that I think the physical construction of how she achieved the accent made every character occasionally sound as if they should be carrying a handkerchief to mop up some spit spray when they spoke with emphasis.

In any story with multiple brothers (in this case, two different sets), voice differentiation can be problematic but that wasn’t the case here. Each brother (three in the Montgomerys and two in the Armstrongs) was distinct in voice and I had no problem determining who was speaking. Also of note since brothers in romance novels seem to invariably get their own story, all the voices were appealing. I could finish up here with additional comments on the technical aspects of the narration that made it a very successful listen for me but they all boil down to the same result: these characters felt real to me, the events were given immediacy, and I was immersed in the story to the point that I forgot it was being narrated.

four-stars

Pride & Passion by Charlotte Featherstone

Pride & Passion by Charlotte FeatherstonePride & Passion by Charlotte Featherstone
Narrator: Rebecca de Leeuw
Series: Brethren Guardians #2
Published by Harlequin Enterprises on 12/1/11
Genres: Historical, Paranormal, Romance

Narration: A- (I feel a bit like I just drove a Ferrari to the corner mini-mart during rush-hour to buy a Twinkie)
Story: B-/C+ (I heard three distinct stories and was mildly dissatisfied with all of them rather than getting one cohesive story with multiple intriguing plot lines)

I’ve been feeling a bit disaffected with my usual run of reading material and I’m afraid this audiobook was unable to lift me out my slump. While the narration was very good and there were aspects of the story that snagged my interest, I struggled to pick out single and fully-developed plot line to follow and felt there was a lot of potential in this book that wasn’t reached. I’m not sorry to have listened to it and on a good day, in a cheerful mood, without having recently read a book that did very well what this book only partially succeeded at with a few of its character/plot threads, the stumbling blocks I encountered might have seemed less obvious. Bianca Amato/Rebecca de Leeuw’s (Both the same person – the former name being given at the start of the audio, the latter being what Audible shows) narration was excellent. She has a lovely voice and delivered a nice range of character voices that covered the emotional spectrum.

For me, the book read kind of like this (huge apology to Goodreads user Lilli Perspice for kiping one of her review styles… only applying it much less effectively):

Book: “Cross my palm with silver and I’ll tell you a tale…”

Me: *hands over money*

Book: “Meet Lucy Ashton as she visits a fortune-teller in an effort to connect with her first lover who has gone missing after murder, mayhem, and fire in the previous book.”

Me: . o 0(OK, nicely mysterious set-up. It seems to go with the “Brethren Guardians” subtitle the book has…sort of a semi-paranormal feel…) “Keep talking.”

Book: “Here’s the heroine’s emotionally remote father who wants her to marry Adrian York, the Duke of Sussex. Here’s all the characters from the previous book. Here’s Adrian, the manly yet tortured love interest who pines for Lucy behind a stoic facade.”

Me: “Alright. They seem to be an interesting group. Go on.”

Book: “Check it: small info dump on Lucy and what happened to her lover and how she still yearns for him and thinks Sussex is a stiff prig.”

Me: “Info-dumpling consumed, can we move on now?”

Book: “Meet the other women who are/will be part of this trilogy of books. See what good friends they are?”

Me: *tapping fingers on desk impatiently* “Is this going somewhere?”

Book: “Hey, I know, let’s have a musicale!”

Me: *yawns*

Book: “How about some more verbal wrangling between Lucy and Adrian? I’ll even throw in another woman in case I want to add a Big Misunderstanding later!”

Me: “I hate the Big Misunderstanding.”

Book: “Don’t worry, that will never develop into anything.”

Me: “Well, what will develop? I’m getting restless.”

Book: “Hmmm, Lucy appears to be attracted to bad boys.”

Me: “That could be interesting.”

Book: “Naw, that won’t be much of a factor in this story. Hmmm, Lucy appears to have shut down emotionally as a response to being ignored as a child.”

Me: “That could be… wait, isn’t she so madly passionate for her first lover that she goes to a mystic to try to find her true love? How is that emotionally closed-off?”

Book: “Don’t worry about that disconnect, the whole thing won’t really come up again. Moving on…hmmm, look at this, some role reversals: Lucy is the selfish and bratty character who disparages the one who loves her and Adrian is the idiot who follows her around until she realizes what she has.”

Me: “Yeah, sorry, that’s just not working for me. Lucy is a self-involved and immature child.”

Book: “Here, try this on for size: Lucy gets a note from her missing lover. She goes to meet him but is intercepted by the Duke.”

Me: “Now you’re talking.”

Book: *Sexy Hijinks ensue*

Me: “Wait! What is it with the ‘best sex evah! with free orgasms for all involved the first time our romantic duo rub up against each other…literally rub’ scenario? *rolls eyes* And enough with the ‘I will do this to you and I’ll take this from you and he never did this for you’ stuff. Can we have a little mutual cooperation please?”

Book: “OK” *flips pages while muttering* “The next morning, Lucy cries over the urchin boy who was her only friend as a child. It turns out her father chased him away for being a gutter snipe. Lucy goes to Adrian’s after getting a letter. There’s a dead body at Adrian’s. Lucy’s father shows up and Lucy accuses Adrian of trying to maneuver her into a compromising position so they are forced to marry but fortunately the whole Brethren gang was there to give the appearance of respectability. Lucy runs off to visit the fortune-teller again and goes missing. Oooh, look, mysterious Templars to catch your interest.” *waves Templars in your face then tosses them over its shoulder before you get a good look*

Me: “What was that?”

Book: “Nothing, nevermind.” *keeps flipping pages rapidly and muttering* Lucy and Adrian both end up at a masked ball at the club owned by the mysterious Orpheus. They find themselves in the same room, separated by a sheer curtain, and under the influence of some strange combination of ether, absinthe, and opium smoke. Seduction begins but is interrupted by Lucy’s father. Now they really are compromised and have to get married.”

Me: “That whole scene was just weird.”

Book: *Stretches, rubs spine, and sighs* “I’m tired of the mystic, the secret guardians of artifacts, and the psuedo-paranormal vibe. Here, have a traditional historical romance.”

Me: “Uh, what?! Wait, all that took up 4/5ths of the book and now they’re married and finding love over the labor pains of a whelping spaniel?”

Book: “Roll with it!”

Me: *gazes wistfully out the window as original Major Plot runs alongside the carriage, rapidly loosing ground*

Book: “Oh fine! Here, have a wacky plot-twist!”

Me: “That’s just a bunch of b…aloney! That could never happen!”

Book: “Oh no! Now there’s danger, kidnapping, false-trails and one of the Brethren Guardians is framed – all in the last chapter. Whatever will be the fate of the most interesting character in the book?”

Me: “Now this is good stuff! What happens next?”

Book: “Sorry, that’s all for now. Come back in six months or so.”

Me: “WHAT!?”

Book: *exasperated* “Was there anything you liked about me?”

Me: “I hope you don’t think I’m shallow when I say you have a lovely cover and your voice is amazing.”

Unclaimed by Courtney Milan

Unclaimed by Courtney MilanUnclaimed by Courtney Milan
Narrator: Rebecca de Leeuw
Series: Turner #2
Published by Harlequin Enterprises on 10/1/11
Genres: Historical, Romance

Book: B+
Narration: B

Jessica Farleigh is a courtesan. No, not an “I’m secretly a virgin and after the hero is done being an ass-hat about my supposed whore-ishness he’s going to have to grovel” courtesan but an “I’ve had to make some hard choices and had a string of ‘protectors’ with whom I’ve *gasp* had a lot of sex” courtesan. Thrown out of the house and disowned at the age of fourteen after being “ruined” by a man who left her in London when he was done with her, Jessica was able to avoid a life on the streets but survived by trading her body and a large piece of her soul for the transient security offered by the men who set her up as their mistress. Emotionally numb and determined to never be another man’s lover, Jessica makes a bargain with her most recent protector – a man who wants the government position Mark Turner is being considered for. Jessica will seduce Mark and ruin his reputation and in return she will earn enough money to allow her to live a quiet life free from the control of men.

Mark Turner is a virgin. No, not a…well, I’m not sure there’s a precedent for male virgins in historical romances from the last ten years, let alone a trope I can reference. Author of The Gentleman’s Practical Guide to Chastity, Mark has been knighted by the queen for “his contribution to popular morality”. Sir Mark is a man who has seen the tragic imbalance in consequences between women and men when it comes to “impurity” and has put forth male chastity as the solution. In an effort to escape his sudden fame, he has retreated to the countryside where he grew up but after encountering Jessica he finds his commitment to chastity sorely tested.

Who knew that when a courtesan set out to seduce a virgin, we actually would end up with both a rather good romance about two people who’ve been painfully molded by tragic events in their childhood as well as a pretty interesting discourse on male/female sexual politics? Neither Mark nor Jessica are simple one-dimensional characters. Mark isn’t an innocent or an idealist, he has simply chosen chastity as a way of ensuring he doesn’t become the source of someone’s ruin or pain. Jessica is neither a hooker with a heart of gold nor a woman who turns into a carefree spirit once she finds love. She has been irrevocably changed by circumstances and although she retains an inner well of hope, it’s about run dry and she’ll do what she has to in order to survive. As the two enter each other’s orbit and allow necessity and desire to pull them together, Mark is forced to learn that he can’t always be the knight in shining armor and sometimes ceding power is the only way to save someone. Jessica has to let go of her rage and fear and learn to fight for herself and take back her own power and control.

Only a few things about this story didn’t work for me, and they all arrived in the last quarter of the book. Jessica constantly thinking and saying something along the lines of “Surely you can see that one such as I can never be right for you” was a wearing refrain, despite understanding the social restrictions of the period and my comprehension of why she found it so hard to value herself. I also found the end a bit drawn out, as if a second rejection scene was specifically put into place in order to lead to Jessica’s moment of self-actualization and quite frankly, it felt a bit forced and lacking in the subtlety I often associate with Ms. Milan’s writing. Even with those two nit-picks, this was a very good book. The characterization was refreshing within the larger standard framework of meeting, conflict, growing attraction, HEA. I could have filled this entire review with snippets of dialogue that were amusing and/or emotionally insightful and I could list several segments where I particularly enjoyed how the author peels a thread from the weave of the character(s) and twists it around – my favorite being the way she drew on Mark and Jessica’s shared religious background to express Jessica’s perception of love as the antithesis of 1 Corinthians 13. To her, “…love was not gentle. Love was not kind. And love was furiously, powerfully jealous.”

On the whole, Rebecca De Leeuw did a lovely job with the narration (in fact, I immediately went to Audible.com to see what else she had done in hopes of finding another audiobook to listen to narrated by her) but there were two characteristics of her performance that bothered me. My immediate impression was that the pause between many of the sentences was a bit too long. Sometimes leveraging those pauses works well for enhancing scenes but in this case I felt like a dog on a leash, straining forwards toward the next sentence and I momentarily considered switching to text in order to have the story delivered at a quicker pace. The second issue actually took me a while to completely figure out: too many general narrative sentences were given a slightly descending progression of pitch and volume, adding drama to sentences that didn’t need it. It’s hard to describe because it wasn’t done to the degree that, say, a movie announcer would if he was outlining the plot and ended with “And then, things really went to hell” and it wasn’t that it made it hard to listen to. My problem with that overused delivery style was that it detracted from the scenes that delivery would have enhanced and it blunted the effect of one of my favorite aspects of the narrator’s performance.

Ms. De Leeuw’s voice simply vibrated with restrained emotion during the many scenes of internal struggle. The overall progression of Jessica’s vocal characteristics was some of the best I have heard, matching the arc of the character’s development and positively bursting with the emotion she so often held in check. Not to imply there wasn’t variation within individual scenes but on the whole the transition from a heart-wrenching desolation and hopelessness, to a woman desperately acting like what she wished she could be, to her allowing her natural humor to emerge and finally to a steely resolve was simply… well, delicious to my ears and despite my somewhat dramatic description, it had a very real-life feel to it. All the characters were well-voiced (distinct and appropriate to the text descriptions) and I enjoyed the slight variation in dialects.

This one definitely falls in the “recommend” category.