As 2023 draws to a close, it’s time to recognize AudioFile’s Best Romance Audiobooks of the year. What’s notable about the narrators of this group of titles is their ability to adapt to complex human interactions. Whether it’s the weight of family expectations, the drama of unexpected events, or conversations that go sideways, these six notable audio experiences depend on their narrators’ ability to accurately convey human emotions. From my own time spent with these audiobooks, I can tell you they exceed expectations and provide surprises along the way.
LOVE, THEORETICALLY by Ali Hazelwood is a high-octane narration and an Earphones Award Winner read by Thérèse Plummer. The stakes for theoretical physicist and secret paid escort Dr. Elsie Hannaway start high and stay that way thanks to Plummer’s electric narration. Elsie applies for a job at MIT only to have her past threaten her future. Plummer plays up the hysterically funny disasters Elsie faces as she verbally duels her mortal enemy Jack, who happens to be on the search committee. The voices of the other MIT professors are equally memorable and add to Elsie’s stress at being under an academic microscope. Plummer’s performance—a mix of well-delivered science jokes and reluctant attraction—is a must listen.
Will Watt’s Earphones Award-winning narration of 10 THINGS THAT NEVER HAPPENED by Alexis Hall is another laugh-out-loud escapade. Like Elsie, Sam has boxed himself into a career corner. After confronting his heartless boss, Jonathan Forest, Sam backs away from Jonathan’s wrath and suffers a concussion on the mattress seller’s showroom floor. Watt plays up the dismay and panic as Sam fakes amnesia and ends up staying with Jonathan during his recovery. Sam delights in prodding Jonathan into full-blown ire, and Watt follows the tension in dialogue and awkward silences with equal skill. Listeners will be shaking their heads at the winding road the lovers take but won’t want to miss a minute of Watt's delivery, complete with Sam’s Sheffield accent and Jonathan’s proper tones. The narrative mix of irreverent humor and serious emotion is superb.
Despite the alarming title—EVEN IF THE SKY IS FALLING—and the fact that it contains stories from different authors read by seven different narrators, this Earphones Award-winning audio is an intimate, consistent listen. Each story has its own narrator until the last selection, which is read by Joy Beharie and Teddy Hamilton. The audio moves from its world-altering premise to individual stories of love, understanding, and reconciliation. The care that the narrators and production staff took is evident as listeners move seamlessly from story to story. In each tale, there’s a sense of being in the moment and being attentive to what’s happening right now. The narrators’ focus on this concept keeps listeners in that same immediate space. EVEN IF THE SKY IS FALLING takes a chaotic premise and delivers a grounded product executed with excellence.
In another anchored performance, narrators Chris Brinkley and Elyse Dinh present the Earphones Award-winning ROLE PLAYING by Cathy Yardley. Listeners who love online gaming will rejoice at the pairing of Maggie and Aiden, who meet in an online guild game and fall for each other through keyboard chat. For everyone else, Brinkley and Dinh quickly win us over with a performance that is as understated as it is adept. Dinh shows Maggie’s slow warming from distrust and cynicism to burgeoning interest for Aiden. There’s true craft in Dinh’s drawing out such a withdrawn, sarcastic personality in an audio reading. Brinkley presents Aiden’s frustration over his elder care responsibilities and his attention to Maggie’s feelings. Both Brinkley and Dinh evoke worlds within the limits their characters face.
Moving from the contained to the explosive, the Earphones Award-winning FULL MOON OVER FREEDOM by Angelina M. Lopez and read by Stacy Gonzalez recounts a volatile summer. Gillian returns to her hometown, Freedom, Kansas, to face divorce, single parenting, and her first lover, Nicky Mendoza. With a flowing grace, Gonzalez rolls from sensual memories of Gillian’s time with Nicky to powerful feelings of failure, inadequacy, and desire. Elements of Latin American folk magic and Spanish language dialogue flesh out Gillian’s specific heritage in a memorable way. Gonzalez’s tempestuous performance is both cathartic and deeply romantic.
Let’s end with an audiobook from one of this year’s Golden Voices honorees, Nicholas Boulton. In the Earphones Award-winning A RAKE OF HIS OWN by A.J. Lancaster, Boulton is as magical as the story. Just like a love spell, there’s a sprinkling of everything here—adventures in the fae realm, murders to solve, and an unlikely romance between London scholar Marius and fae prince Rakken. Like Gonzalez's, Boulton’s performance is intense, a heady mixture of immortal passion and mortal frailty. He is able to move from Rakken’s dominating authority to Marius’s cerebral analysis with complete ease, throwing in tons of character and creature voices to delight listeners. Complicated world building is no match for Boulton’s narrative talent.
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Elise Dinh photo courtesy of the narrator. Will Watt photo courtesy of the narrator.