Caleb by Sarah McCarty

Caleb by Sarah McCartyCaleb by Sarah McCarty
Narrator: Tavia Gilbert
Series: Shadow Wranglers #1
Published by Tantor Media on 9/27/11
Genres: Paranormal, Romance

Full disclosure: DNF (50%)
Book: D+
Narration: B

I’ve read another book by this writer
Full of cowboys and writing that seemed tighter
“Pretty good” was my thought
“With a decent enough plot”
“I’ll try again if I want something lighter”

Since audio is surely my bent
And I had credits that languished unspent
I thought to try something new…
I should have checked a review
I’m disgruntled and now need to vent

The cowboys in this one are all vampire
And the heroine is set to expire
Killed by the hero
When his willpower hit zero
And his brothers to save him did conspire

The brothers have the last name of Johnson
(If that’s meant to be a pun it’s a bad one)
With the quantity of sex
And all this biting of pecs
I keep looking for a plot but there is none

Allie only drinks life’s blood from Caleb
“I’m a damn vegetarian” – there’s the rub
So she drinks then they screw
And finally when they’re through
I start rethinking my rating of “Jacob”

Here I pause in plot summary of prose
Every scene has him slicing her clothes!
She never gets nicked
It’s just threads that get picked
She’ll run out and what if it snows!?

I take issue with a lack of continuity
And am finding a lot of incongruity
In the kitchen! Now the bed!
But perhaps I misread
‘Cause it happened with total ambiguity

Then there’s part where the words were unclear
His cock seemed to speak (made me sneer)
He’s quite jealous, growls of “mine”
. o O(It gets old) – yes, I whine.
Must PNR to this line all adhere?

But the part that made me frown in disgust?
He chided her for not restraining her bust
His brothers were riled
So he acted like a child
And accused her of rousing their lust

I can say I liked the narration
With pauses of just right duration
It couldn’t save the prose
But hey that’s how it goes
Some books just can’t buy salvation

In closing I’m forced to admit
To this audio I couldn’t commit
I got half-way through
But that horse threw a shoe
It and I as a match were unfit

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.

Angels of Darkness by Ilona Andrews, Nalini Singh, Sharon Shinn

Angels of Darkness by Ilona Andrews, Nalini Singh, Sharon ShinnAngels of Darkness by Ilona Andrews, Nalini Singh, Sharon Shinn
Narrator: Coleen Marlo, Justine Eyre, Renee Raudman
Published by Tantor Media on 10/4/11
Genres: Fantasy, Paranormal, Romance

This audio collection of novellas was a resounding success for me, even though it does not include one of the stories (Meljean Brook’s Ascension) found in the text version. That’s quite a coup considering I usually avoid short-story collections like the plague. All three novellas were very entertaining and the narrations ranged from good to very good.

 

Angel’s Wolf – Nalini Singh

Story: B-
Narration: B

The vampire Noel is sent to Louisiana by Raphael, the Archangel of New York. Nimra is the angel who holds Louisiana. Noel was brutally assaulted while working for Raphael and he assumes he has been sent to Louisiana because he is damaged goods. In reality, Nimra requested assistance after an attempt on her life that could only have come from within her court. The two seek the traitor and find themselves irresistibly drawn to each other along the way.

An entertaining novella set in the world of the Guild Hunter series, Angel’s Wolf is an enjoyable romance with a dash of intrigue. I was slightly disappointed at the overall construction of the character of Nimra because I felt there was a lack of consistency between her softer personality and the entire construction of angelic nature that Nalini Singh has developed but it did remain true the male/female dynamics that play out in this series. I actually enjoyed this story more than I did the last two full-length novels in the Guild Hunter world.

I’ve always thought Justine Eyre’s unique sound was ideally suited to giving voice to the tough guild hunters and remote and often cruel immortals who populate Singh’s world and she doesn’t disappoint with this novella. I initially stumbled over Nimra’s accent but ended up being swept into the story. The delivery of some unexpectedly subtle emotional cues capped off a strong narration.

 

Alphas: Origins – Ilona Andrews

Story: B+
Narration: B+

Karina is chaperoning a school field trip when she pulls off at a motel for a pit-stop. When she and her daughter are attacked before they can leave, she is “rescued” by a frightening creature and the group of men who accompany him. She is forced to make a bargain to save herself and her daughter and agrees to be a blood “donor” for Lucas, the creature who rescued her.

Sound like a semi-typical vampire or werewolf PNR-type story? Yeah, not so much and I’m glad of it because I really enjoyed this one. A heroine who makes realistic decisions in a fantastical situation, totally unsexy blood drinking, interesting power dynamics, intriguing semi-sci-fi world-building, a hero whose actions are understandable but not necessarily appealing, and some engaging psychological musings made this a world and characters I would love to read more of.

True confession moment: I’ve listened to Renee Raudman’s narration before (primarily with Ilona Andrews’ Kate Daniels series) and in the back of my mind I’d think . o 0 (it’s OK but not at all my preferred style).  The fact that I would then go on to listen to the next in the series always puzzled me (I can be a bit slow). With her narration of this novella, I found myself having an entirely different experience. While not dissimilar to her presentation style in other audiobooks, it did come across to me as slightly more subdued and I think that made the difference. It also allowed me to finally identify why I could categorize Ms. Raudman in the “not for me” category but still listen or re-listen to books narrated by her: Renee Raudman simply excels at bringing the listener along on the journey of discovery. I become utterly convinced that events are happening as she reads them and neither she nor I have any idea of the outcome; we discover it together. Combine some well-portrayed humor and emotional content with that particular skill and I enjoyed this audio-novella tremendously. Clearly I need to rethink my categorization of this narrator.

 

Nocturne – Sharon Shinn

Story: B
Narration: B-

Moriah is a woman with secrets but when she encounters Corban, a blind angel, she is unwillingly drawn into helping him. Corban has spent the last two years angry, bitter, and in isolation after a tragic accident took his sight and his faith. When Moriah pushes her way into his life, he is forced to put aside his resentment and start living again.

I really like Sharon Shinn’s Samaria series and I enjoyed this chance to venture back into that world and spend some time with the well-rounded and realistic characters that people it. The romance is a slow-build and it’s really the character development and push-pull interaction between Moriah and Corban that draws and holds my interest.

While I find her voice very appealing, Ms. Marlo either has or employs a very distinct cadence and I found the primary barrier to my being fully immersed in the story the fact that both the narrative and every character had that speech pattern, which inhibits my ability to perceive a realistic differentiation between characters, despite very clear pitch differences. With that said, the narration was still good and there’s such a lovely sense of realism when Moriah voices her amusement that I found myself smiling in response, not just hearing the humor being voiced but feeling it as well.

Bonds of Justice by Nalini Singh

Bonds of Justice by Nalini SinghBonds of Justice by Nalini Singh
Narrator: Angela Dawe
Series: Psy-Changeling #8
Published by Tantor Media on 9/20/11
Genres: Paranormal, Romance

Story: B+
Narration: B+

Sophia Russo is a J- Psy (Justice) who has the ability to pull memories from people and project them to others. Max Shannon is a New York cop with a high case solve rate and natural mental shields that make him impervious to Psy mental manipulation. The two have crossed paths before but when they are both assigned to assist Psy Councilor Nikita Duncan in tracking down a killer in her organization, they are forced to confront the attraction between them. Both have emerged from very difficult childhoods with scars but both have also developed a tremendous inner strength and as they learn to open up to one another I found myself completely drawn in to the developing relationship between the two. The romance is nicely woven between the dual investigations taking place and, perhaps because it is a Psy/Human pairing rather than Psy/Changeling, has a very different feel than previous books in this series.

The romance angle and the threats to Councilor Duncan are only a part of the story. There is also a serial killer who is toying with Sophia and Max as he taunts both them and the justice system with offers to reveal where he has buried his past victims. Also in the mix is Sophia’s degenerating psychic shields (common to J – Psy, who tend to burn out early and need frequent “rehabilitation”), the ongoing political upheaval in the Psy Council, and a minor story-line regarding Max’s brother.

This is book eight in the Psy/Changeling series and it was a turning point for me in a couple of different ways. My initial enjoyment of this series had started to fade by book six but book eight really renewed my interest and started developing more over-arching series plot points.  Having read the entire series in paperback, I went to the audiobooks for a “re-read” and found that even some of the books I didn’t like as well as others took on new life and new enjoyment in audio form. I loved the first two audiobooks and liked the third but I had some issues with pauses in the narration in books four through seven. With book eight, I think Angela Dawe turns in her best narration of the series. Of course, this happens to be my second favorite book in this series so that helps too.

This book is also where I came to really appreciate the way that Nalini Singh juggles multiple suspense story lines, the political sub-plots, the primary romance, hints for future plot lines, and catching us up (briefly) with characters from previous books. There is a very seamless flow to the story lines and they all pull together nicely. This book also gave me some needed insight into Nikita’s feelings towards Sascha and this was the first time Kaleb Krychek hit my radar as a possible lead character for a later book.

Max and Sophia’s primary focus is the case they are working and there is a bit less (which isn’t to imply it’s not prevalent still) romance/sex in this one. That worked to solve one issue that I noticed after listening to the audiobooks in such close temporal proximity to one another – there is quite a bit of repetition in the phrasing used during the sex scenes.

Since I listened to this book on vacation, I had a lot of time to consider the narration of this book, especially since there seems to be a very distinct division in opinion regarding that. Plus, lots of driving time with my brain in neutral leads to lengthy reviews so….

I have enjoyed the narration for this series but, in part, I chalked that up to a preference for (or at least not a dislike of) more subdued narration. With this book I started to analyze other reasons I might find the audiobooks so successful at delivering the story and as I listened to Bonds of Justice, I realized that to make the Psy interesting to listen to, they have to be given a blunted affect, not the blank affect they are described as having. It would provide too great a contrast if the non-Psy characters were given dramatic voices so structurally, the narration is pretty well thought out. In addition, as we catch up with Lucas and Sascha in little snippets in this book, the growing increase in emotion in Sascha’s voice is rather delightful to hear.

I also found myself interested to note another characteristic of Angela Dawe’s narration. I could invariably tell when the sentence following a spoken line of dialogue was going to refer to the character’s voice as husky, or strained, or generally altered in some manner because the voice that was delivered was so distinctive in that characteristic. I actually found myself mentally composing that descriptive sentence each time the line of dialogue was ending. That seems a no-brainer because shouldn’t all dialogue be delivered with textual accuracy?  But it was so very ear-catching in this series. I think this is a reflection not just of a very tight adherence to textual voice descriptions but the fact that all other dialogue was managed primarily through a narrower than anticipated range of modulation and a more steady cadence of speech than normal, which I suspect has the effect of leaving some listeners unmoved by the narration.

My only qualm with the narration of this book is that at times, I found myself confusing Max and Sophia’s voices at the start of quiet dialogue between the two. This is because Sophia is given a slightly husky voice in a lower register but I really liked her voice so my ability to be confused is a minor quibble.

This was a very good audiobook and on the whole, I would recommend the series (excluding Mine To Posses) in audio format for a first read or a re-read.

Elijah by Jacquelyn Frank

Elijah by Jacquelyn FrankElijah by Jacquelyn Frank
Narrator: Xe Sands
Series: Nightwalkers #3
Published by Tantor Media on 8/15/11
Genres: Paranormal, Romance

Book: C+
Narration: B+

Book three in the Nightwalkers series is the story of Elijah, Demon Warrior Captain extraordinaire, and Siena, the Lycanthrope Queen. See all those capitals in that sentence? That is what Jacquelyn Frank’s writing is like for me: emphatic, a little bigger than life, sometimes a little too important sounding, but at the same time quite fun. This audiobook made for an excellent weekend listen while I got on with the mundane tasks of life.

After almost losing his life in a traitorous attack, Elijah is rescued by Siena. She nurses him back to health and the time they spend together sparks an attraction that quickly turns into an inferno. Ruler of a generally matriarchal society and genetically programmed to mate for life, Siena is reluctant to accept her feelings for Elijah. After the death of her mother, her father assumed control of the monarchy and his hate for the demon race drove centuries of conflict. As a result, Siena refuses to share her sovereign power with any male. In addition to the emotional struggle the couple faces, the forces that ambushed Elijah have devised a plan that, if successful, would plunge the entire Nightwalker world into war.

What I liked:

I enjoy the power dynamics in the characters’ relationships. Ms. Frank does an excellent job at combining alpha and beta characteristics in her heroes rather than mainlining one genre convention. We also get some relationship angst but these characters are able to actually have discussions with one another and relationship conflict resolution is almost always over by the first half, leaving the second half of the book for external conflict resolution.

More so than any other author in the genre, Frank writes love scenes that vary widely in tone from serious and intense to passionate and just plain fun. I enjoy the playful scenes because so often in this line of stories, intimate acts are all about dominating animalistic need and quite frankly, variety is the spice of life.

What I didn’t like so much:

I haven’t completely bought in to a level of gravitas in the world-building that requires the word choices Frank employs. On one hand, I get the ‘ancient demon society with years of culture’ aspect that drives the prose to grandiose levels but I sometimes think it can be interpreted as pretentious.*

This book was a bit heavy on exposition and on catching the new reader up on the back-story.

The narration:

I think a large part of what makes this series so successful for me is the narration. Ms. Sands uses a cadence for the exposition that makes me take the text more seriously than if I was reading it and the dialogue has a natural flow with excellent character differentiation. There is an intimate quality to the reading of the sex scenes that invests them with emotional content and avoids the type of over-dramatic narration that tends to make me uncomfortable. Objectively, I might question the true-to-life nature of the French and Russian accents but to be honest, I’ve never seen the Nightwalker world as an alternate reality so I’m not listening for real-world analogs; I take the accents as given for the various races.

If you are looking for an intro to Paranormal Romance or prefer your PNR heavy on dominant alpha men, this isn’t the best book to pick. If you’re looking for an audiobook that can suck you in to a larger-than-life story with well-voiced characters, this series would be a good choice.

 

The true confessions part of the blog:

*I feel a bit like an idiot for writing that because I imagine I sound like that sometimes and I completely understand the idea that ‘but that’s just what that word means so it’s the right word to use!’ When I hear it, though, it just strikes me as jarring and makes me roll my eyes a bit.