With Valentine's Day only days away, it's time to get in the mood for love—and what better way than listening to an audiobook about two people who at first don't get along but then fall madly in love? Emily Connelly, assistant editor of AudioFile magazine, recommends her favourite romance audiobooks.
Are these the best romance audiobooks ever, in your view?
I chose some of my all-time favourites that I would recommend to other people. I don’t always read romance as audiobooks, but it’s so fun, it adds a lot to the experience when the narrator is translating all these emotions into audio. I should clarify that I haven’t listened to every audiobook, of course, and I’m sure there are tons that other people have listened to and loved. These are just my favourites of the ones I’ve heard. They’re five that I really loved listening to and that I think others would too.
Let’s go through the ones you’ve picked and what’s so good about them. First up you’ve chosen The Bride Test, which is part of a series of romance novels written by Helen Hoang with Emily Woo Zeller narrating the audiobook. Tell me more about it.
I really loved this. It’s so good. It’s a story about two people falling in love, of course, because that’s the heart of every romance, but it’s also a story of coming to America. It’s about a woman from Vietnam, Esme, who’s convinced to come and try to woo a young man by his mother. She’s doing it partly because she wants to have a better life for her family and for her daughter. So, it’s both a story of her meeting him in these funny circumstances, but also it’s a story of her figuring out her way in America, figuring out English and making her own path. I love that it’s both of those things.
And hearing Emily Woo Zeller narrate means you get to hear all these Vietnamese words and phrases and conversations in a way that you can understand what’s going on. It’s all done within context, but you can hear the right tones and hear how it’s supposed to be pronounced, which adds so much to the story.
“I chose some of my all-time favourites that I would recommend to other people”
The author Helen Hoang’s first book was The Kiss Quotient, which was also excellent. But I really love this one, because added in the mix is this amazing character, Esme. Khai, the main male character, is Vietnamese also, but he doesn’t have the language very strongly. The two of them are conversing to each other: she’s talking in Vietnamese, he’s talking in English, they both understand a little bit. And you hear Esme learning English more as you go through the story. The narrator, Emily, did a great job translating that too. You can hear her English getting stronger and stronger as she goes.
Khai is autistic, and so is the author. She has talked a bit about what that meant for her, to be writing an autistic hero, and an autistic heroine in The Kiss Quotient. She does it beautifully. Part of the story is that he’s always been told that he doesn’t feel emotions the right way. So he’s working through this relationship and figuring out how he feels about Esme and also recognizing that he, of course, does feel emotions, it’s just differently. Both of them grow so much over the course of the story.
It’s very funny. It’s definitely steamy. It’s just a great listen.
It’s interesting the Vietnamese language angle: that’s something you get in an audiobook that you would not get if you were reading this romance to yourself. You wouldn’t know how to pronounce words.
And honestly, that’s one of the things I love about getting to listen to audiobooks, you get to hear the accents, and the different character voices, and if there’s other languages in it that aren’t English, you get to hear those too. If the narrator does a good job, you get all the emotions of the conversations, and the context, but you also get to hear how things are actually pronounced. It’s really such an added bonus of getting to listen.
Okay, so let’s go on to the next one, which is Get A Life, Chloe Brown by Talia Hibbert and read by Adjoa Andoh. So this is set in Britain, is that right?
I realized when I was putting the list together that there are a couple set in the UK. I think it’s partly because for me, as an American, getting to hear these accents adds a lot to the story. Also, these are just really excellent writers and narrators. They make the story so much fun to listen to.
This audiobook, Get a Life, Chloe Brown is the first in a series. It was the first book by Talia Hibbert that I read. She’s excellent. I’ve really enjoyed reading her books in print and in audio. She’s such a funny writer. This is the one that I have gifted to friends most often.
It’s about Chloe Brown, who’s had a brush with death: she witnessed a car accident and was almost involved. And she realizes how dull her eulogy would be, if anyone were talking about her life. So she decides, ‘That’s it! I’m going to change my life. I’m going to do things up’ and she makes a list of all the ways she’s going to change things. That’s also funny, her list-making self systematically deciding to be different.
So she has a plan to make herself bolder, but also realizes that she needs help with that plan. She has chronic pain and fibromyalgia, which the author does as well. Being organized can help her cope when she’s in too much pain or has pushed herself too far. That’s not something that’s fixed over the course of the audiobook at all, but she’s figuring out new ways to cope with it while having more adventures. And she winds up getting help from her super, Red. Initially, they butt heads, but he helps her when she’s rescuing a kitten out of a tree. He’s this bad boy who rides a motorcycle and she decides he’s the perfect person to help her go out on the town. In exchange, she’s developing him a website.
The two of them have such good banter and Chloe has this perfect wit, really dry, that comes across really well. And in the audiobook Adjoa Andoh is just so funny. She’s so perfect with the timing of everything and the pacing, and all the different voices. She has been getting a lot of buzz lately for her role as Lady Danbury in the Netflix show, Bridgerton, which people have been excited about. It’s so fun hearing her narrate this audiobook.
Especially if you’re somebody new to romance, this is a great one to jump in with.
Is this one very steamy as well? Do they vary in levels of steaminess?
They do, but I think all of these ones are probably on a fairly similar level of steaminess. There’s a camping trip they get to go on that’s a lot of fun and which is a big deal for her. Since she deals with chronic pain, the idea of going camping is an ordeal and Red goes all out making sure she’s super comfortable and making it a special experience. It’s really sweet.
Next up on your list of favourite romance audiobooks is Boyfriend Material by Alexis Hall and read by Joe Jameson. I read one review that said it was like Bridget Jones’s Diary except gayer.
It’s also set in the UK, in London and it was one of our picks for the best romance audiobooks for 2020. I hadn’t heard anything with this narrator before, Joe Jameson, but he is so good at making you laugh along with the story. He projects the characters so well.
It’s a story between two British men who initially are extremely prickly towards each other. It’s a fake dating scheme, which is one of those tropes in romance novels that is so fun, these two people who are like, ‘It’s fine, we’ll just pretend we’re dating for this other reason.’ Of course, they won’t be able to resist each other. Luc is the main character and he is an estranged son of an aging rock star. He keeps winding up in tabloids and that’s affecting his work for the nonprofit he works for. They’re saying, ‘you need to be taken more seriously.’ So he winds up asking Oliver, who is a friend of a friend and a London barrister, who’s very proper, to pose as his boyfriend because he’s someone who is very well respected.
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In the audiobook, you get to hear all the accents of the main characters. There’s also Luc’s Welsh co-worker and his French mother. Joe Jameson did a great job moving between all of those.
It’s a really fun listen. There’s a trend with a lot of these books that they’re both funny and sweet and there’s a depth to them, too. Both of the main characters are feeling very vulnerable due to past relationships and Luke’s exposure in the tabloids has affected the way he relates to the world a lot. But it’s also just so funny.
Okay, we’re now at number four on your list of great romance audiobooks. This is Desire Lines by Elizabeth Kingston and read by Nicholas Boulton. This is going back into the past, it’s a medieval romance.
Yes, it is. I think part of the appeal is you don’t see that time period explored very much, or at least I don’t. Most of the time you have Regency or Victorian romances. This is going way back, and it’s set during the Welsh rebellions against the Norman rulers. It’s part of a series, but it’s one that you can listen to on its own. You’ll get more out of it if you have listened to the previous ones, but it’s okay to start with this one.
I love that it’s set in the medieval era but it’s also familiar in that it’s a road trip story. They spend most of the audiobook traveling around Wales, and you get a sense of where they’re going and what the countryside is like. That can be so nice, especially in times like now where you can’t travel and we’re all stuck at home. It’s fun to be on the road with them. Nicholas Boulton, the narrator, is a romance reader favourite. He’s very good in this series and is especially good at doing the Welsh accents and making all these very distinctive characters. We actually have a new interview with him up on our podcast, Behind the Mic!
The story is about a man Gryff, a Welshman in hiding who is captured by violent thieves. He’s being made to travel around with them to take care of the falcons that he’s been taking care of for years. He’s saved by a woman, Nan, who swoops in and kills all of the people who have been keeping him captive, pretty much on her own. She’s very skilled with knives. She doesn’t speak very much at all.
He winds up traveling around with her, so it’s the two of them. He’s very secretive about who he is because he’s worried about being caught and she’s very secretive for her own reasons. The two of the work so well as a pair, it’s fun getting to travel around with them. But there are so many really rich historical details in this too. You can tell that the author has done a lot of research into falconry, about where they all are. I also really appreciated that there are Black characters and Jewish characters and context within the story for what that would mean at the time. Those are people who were actually there, and that’s not often shown in historical romances. So I think she did a great job with that, too.
So have you read all her books?
Yes, I have. In this series, at least. I read the first one in print and then I listened to the second two. It’s fun reading about a time that we’re not often seeing represented in historical romances. She does it really well.
Okay, so now we’re at the last of the romance audiobooks you’re recommending. This is Love Lettering by Kate Clayborn and read by Nicol Zanzarella. We’re back in the United States again.
This is an Earphones Award winner from us. I started listening to it again, in advance of us talking. I listened a bit to all of them, but with this one I wound up getting two hours into it! It’s like, ‘Wow, yes, it’s still a really good story.’
It’s a contemporary romance. We’re back in modern times and it’s set in New York City. One of the things that’s so great about the story is that it’s so tied to the city and the main character’s relationships to it. We can’t travel anywhere, but the author makes you feel like you’re wandering around New York City with Meg and Reid. Part of the story is that these characters wind up going on a tour of their own making to find all these different hand-lettered signs around the city. So you’re getting a new appreciation of—or at least I did, I visited New York a lot of times, but I don’t know how much I always paid attention to—these old hand-lettered signs and the history behind them. It’s really fun to listen to and get that out of it. It’s a story that surprised me, because that was something that I didn’t think I would be very interested in, the whole idea of the detailed work of hand lettering. I think a lot of credit goes to the narrator, Nicol, who really highlights all the humour and playfulness of the audiobook.
That’s the main character’s job, doing lettering?
That’s right. Meg is a calligrapher. She has built a business around doing fancy, hand-lettered planners for clients that they’ll have her do once a month to make their lives look interesting. She enjoys it, but she’s also had a bit of a creative block. And this man, Reid, walks back into her life. She’d done his wedding program for him the year before. He comes in saying, ‘You need to tell me why you knew my wedding was a mistake.’ He’s realized there was a code that she had subconsciously written into his wedding program that spelled out the word ‘mistake’. She’s like, ‘That’s terrible, I can’t believe I did that! I don’t want anyone to know.’
But he never did wind up getting married because, for a number of reasons, he realized it was a mistake. As an aside, he also mentions that he hates living in New York and can’t wait to leave. So she decides that he would be a good companion for a tour looking for all these signs—the fun of showing him why she loves New York might spur something in her to get her through her creative block.
“Reading romances right now can be such a comfort. You know it’s going to end okay”
Another thing I loved about this book is that one of the key conflicts is Meg and her roommate, who have been best friends for a long time, having a falling out. She’s not sure why. Their friendship has changed, her friend is very distant, she’s going to move out of their apartment. So Meg is grieving this lost friendship. And I think that’s something that’s obviously so important in all of our lives, having these close friendships, and that’s not often represented. So the romantic relationship isn’t the only one that’s given prominence in the story. You get that added depth of, ‘How do you figure out new ways of being friends? How do you build new friendships when you’re an adult?’ And Nicol makes you feel just how upset Meg is over this shift in her friendship.
It’s really an excellent story. And I don’t want to spoil anything, but it takes a very unexpected turn later on in the audiobook, something I really did not expect at all. It was one that was a surprise to me. Again, I think if somebody wasn’t a regular romance reader, and they were curious about the genre, this is a great one to get started.
It’s one of my favourites. I fell into it when I started working at AudioFile. I was seeing all these reviews coming in of audiobooks that sounded so good. I thought I should try it out and see what I thought about it. There’s so much creativity in the genre. We all know the formula for romance is that there are two main characters who are going to fall in love by the end of the book, but the creativity in making a story—that even though you know it’s going to end happily, how are you going to get there?—can be so exciting.
Also, I think to many people, reading romances right now can be such a comfort. You know it’s going to end okay, you’re not going to end the book and feel devastated by all the things that the author put the characters through. When there’s so much uncertainty in our lives right now, it can be nice to have that certainty.
There was even one I read as an ebook, Whiteout, by Adriana Anders. It’s set in Antarctica and there’s a polar researcher and a cook, who wind up almost being killed by these evil people. They’re trekking across Antarctica and barely making it through alive. Even in the middle of winter and with all the uncertainty that everybody’s facing, the book was exciting and engaging. I knew it was going be okay, but how is the author going to get us there? What is going to happen? It was thrilling reading the book.
You’ve studied library science: does Jane Austen come under romance? Because it’s the same format.
I think people would think of it first as classics. That’s where I would mentally be putting it. I had read classics like those before I was a regular romance reader. I’d also read a number of young adult romances that I hadn’t really thought of as romance either. That’s another genre that’s so fun and full of a lot of creative writers.
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