Charming the Shrew by Laurin Wittig (audiobook) – Narrated by Ralph Lister

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Returning to the Scottish Highlands after a fierce battle with the English, Tayg Munro receives a hero’s welcome – and an ultimatum. To take his place as heir to the chiefdom, he must choose a wife or have one chosen for him. Furious and stalling for time, the brooding warrior volunteers for a mission that takes him deep into the Highlands, with no hint of the fateful encounter that awaits him….

Catriona MacLeod is known as the Shrew of Assynt, thanks to her razor-sharp tongue and her unwillingness to yield to her five brothers. When she learns that her eldest brother has promised her hand in marriage to a loathsome man, she flees into the Scottish wilderness, determined to seek the king’s intervention. There she reluctantly joins forces with a handsome traveler, unable to anticipate the treacherous plot that will soon embroil them – or the passion that will ignite between them.

Rating: B- for content and C+ for narration

The plot of Charming the Shrew certainly wouldn’t win any prizes for originality, but that didn’t prevent me from enjoying the audiobook about a hero-in-disguise and the intelligent and sharp-tongued woman with whom he is forced to undertake a wintry journey.

Tayg Munro is the heir to the chiefdom of his clan of Culrain. Having spent a year away fighting with King Robert (the Bruce), Tayg returns home to a hero’s welcome. He wants nothing more than to be left to his own devices for a while and to perhaps take advantage of the many invitations he receives from the willing women of the clan.

But that is not to be. Following the death of his brother, Tayg’s parents are, more than ever, concerned about ensuring the safety of the clan by seeing Tayg married and producing sons of his own. He is adamant that he is not ready to marry and his mother equally determined to find him a bride. His father tells him that he cannot assume his position and duties as his heir until Tayg has found himself a wife. Stalling for time, Tayg undertakes a mission for the King, thinking that the journey will give him an opportunity to escape his mother’s demands and afford him a chance to look for a wife on his own terms.

Catriona MacLeod is known far and wide as the “shrew of Assynt” because of her sharp tongue and quick temper. Her eldest brother is planning to force her into an unwanted marriage with the chief of a neighbouring clan, and she has nobody to turn to for help. Desperate, she runs away, intending to make her way to her aunt’s house and thence, perhaps, to a convent, as that may be the only way she can avoid marriage to a man she detests.

She meets Tayg (who has decided to travel in the guise of a wandering bard) by accident following her flight and, with severe weather settling in, she is forced to accept his help to find shelter and food. He discovers she’s unpleasant company, thinking she deserves her shrewish reputation, and hopes to be able to part ways with her as soon as possible.

He changes his mind when Catriona unwittingly tells him something which makes him realise that her brothers are plotting against the king and instead, decides to take her with him as proof of the plot and as a hostage. He tells her nothing of this; knowing he is travelling to meet with the king, she is happy to tag along, as she believes Robert may be able to find her a husband more to her liking. Perhaps someone like Tayg of Culrain, warrior and hero of whose bravery and prowess in battle songs are sung and tales are told throughout the Highlands.

One of the things I particularly enjoy about “road trip” stories is that the author can take plenty of time to develop her characters and their relationship without too much extraneous action or too many other characters crowding in, and Ms Witting has certainly made good use of the trope in this story. As they travel together, Tayg’s opinions about Catriona begin to change as he learns more about what has caused her to be so prickly and quick to anger; and she begins to see that perhaps her behaviour has not been as it should and so she tries hard to listen more and to think before she speaks.

The romance between them develops quite naturally and at a good pace. Tayg is not your normal super-alpha Highland chieftain; he’s charming and funny and – for the most part – accepts Catriona for what and who she is and is proud of her independence and determination.

Catriona is perhaps a little more of a stereotypical character, a woman who has suffered humiliation at the hands of those who should have protected her and has developed a hard shell as a way of protecting herself from finding herself in that situation again. But she is not too proud to change her ways or to admit to her feelings for her handsome young bard. I did have some issues with her behaviour towards the end of the novel, when she seemed to suddenly turn into an even more stereotypical romantic heroine who couldn’t make up her mind and was then determined to push the hero away because she wasn’t good enough for him, but other than that, I thought she was fairly likeable.

As I said at the beginning of this review, the plot isn’t especially original, but I’ve got nothing against an unoriginal storyline provided it’s well-told and well-written, as is the case here. Both protagonists are strongly and consistently characterised, and the author’s depiction of the Highland winter was very evocative.

Ralph Lister is a very experienced narrator, but I believe this book to be his first foray into the romance genre. I enjoyed his narration very much, although I did have a number of issues with his character portrayals.

He has a very pleasant, slightly husky baritone which is expressive and very pleasant to the ear. His narration was well-paced, his enunciation was clear and I enjoyed listening to him very much.

I did, however, have problems when it came to his interpretation of Catriona and the other female characters. He did raise the pitch of his voice to portray the heroine, but it seemed that almost everything she said, she shouted, even in the more romantic scenes. I don’t know if it was because sustaining the higher pitch was a strain or if it was a conscious acting choice, but in any case, it really didn’t work for me. I know that Catriona is supposed to sound “shrewish” – but that doesn’t mean that she shouts all the time.

Another issue was the one of accents. I know I frequently discuss the authenticity – or otherwise – of different British accents in the audiobooks I listen to, but it’s something that’s really important to me. If I’m supposed to be listening to a Scotsman and yet he sounds like an Irishman, I’m going to find it irritating and it will take me out of the story completely. I do realise that for some, this isn’t as important an issue as it is for me, but this is my review and so I’m going to mention it again!

As soon as the Scottish characters started speaking, I realised that I wasn’t going to be listening to a performance where the accents sounded either consistent or authentic. I can adjust my expectations for that and did so, but I’d be remiss if I didn’t point out that the Scottish accents throughout were distinctly “iffy” and sometimes a character would begin a sentence sounding Scottish and end it sounding Irish. There are definite similarities between those accents, but they’re also distinctly different, and there were more than a few occasions when that happened. I also thought that Mr Lister didn’t seem to have quite decided where to pitch Tayg, as much of the time, he sounded rather high-pitched, which didn’t really fit with the picture of the brawny Highland warrior the author had drawn. His portrayal of Tayg worked best when he kept his voice closer to his natural register, and used a softer tone than the harder-edged one he employed in conjunction with the higher pitch.

One last thing was that it sounded to me as though Mr Lister constantly mis-pronounced the heroine’s name as “Cat-ri-OH-na”, rather than “Catr-EE-o-na”, which is the way I’ve always thought the name was pronounced.

Despite those reservations, however, I did enjoy Charming the Shrew and would definitely consider listening to more of Mr Lister’s work. I think he’s an excellent reader, and welcome his addition to the ever-expanding stable of romance narrators – but I think he needs to re-think the vocalisations of his heroines in any future work in this genre.

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