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The Black Madonna audiobook.jpg

(Roundheads and Cavaliers, #1)

 Genre:  Historical Fiction (17th Century – Genoa 1636 & 1646, English Civil Wars 1639-1645)

 Cover Blurb (Amazon):

As England slides into Civil War, master-goldsmith and money-lender, Luciano Falcieri del Santi embarks on his own hidden agenda.

A chance meeting one dark night results in an unlikely friendship with Member of Parliament, Richard Maxwell. Richard’s daughter, Kate – a spirited girl who vows to hold their home against both Cavalier and Roundhead – soon finds herself fighting an involuntary attraction to the clever, magnetic and diabolically beautiful Italian.

Hampered by the warring English and the quest itself growing daily more dangerous, Luciano begins to realise that his own life and that of everyone close to him rests on the knife-edge of success … for only success will permit him to reclaim the Black Madonna and offer his heart to the girl he loves.

From the machinations within Parliament to the last days of the King’s cause, The Black Madonna is an epic saga of passion and intrigue at a time when England was lost in a dark and bloody conflict.

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The Black Madonna is a sweeping, epic tale of love, betrayal, loyalty, intrigue, and a family’s determination to support each other throughout the bloody ravages of a civil war, into which their country has been plunged.

I loved every minute of this truly sumptuous and scintillating saga of triumph over adversity – firstly in the written word, and now in more than twenty-two glorious hours of audio, performed by the highly talented actor, Alex Wyndham.

As usual with this author, her characters are quite unique. Luciano Falcieri del Santi is an Italian master-goldsmith and usurer (money lender); he has imperfectly matched shoulders and a burning ambition to find out, not only the truth, but also to punish the men who, when he was only a boy of twelve, had perjured themselves in order to have his innocent father executed for treason in England.

He has worked hard to succeed at his craft and also has a natural flair for finance, which has enabled him to persuade his uncle to loan him a large amount of money. Luciano offers The Black Madonna as surety – a simple but serenely beautiful figurine, much treasured by Luciano’s family. It is all he has to bargain with, but such is the reverence with which the figurine is held that his uncle agrees.

Luciano’s occupation as a much despised money lender, his slight, but nevertheless fairly obvious, physical deformity, and his single minded and determined quest for revenge and justice would not immediately conjure up a romantic figure. But, somehow, in her usual inimitable way, Stella Riley has created just that – an enigmatic, brilliant and quite dazzlingly beautiful young man whom Kate Maxwell, much to her own initial disgust, is secretly in thrall to from their first meeting. She is fascinated to realise that he is the epitome of a painting of Lucifer, the fallen Angel, on the ceiling of her family’s chapel. Luciano dominates the story from the first page and eventually earns the friendship and trust of Richard Maxwell, an honourable and well-respected member of Charles the first’s doomed parliament, and the father of Kate and Eden, the two eldest Maxwell siblings, who figure predominately in this story.

It’s unnecessary to go into the politics and tragedies of the English Civil Wars in great depth in the review, because this talented historian and writer has done the hard work for us to enjoy. In fact, I am in awe of the daunting task she set herself when she began researching and writing this series more than twenty five years ago… without the benefit of the internet. Suffice to say that not only The Black Madonna but every book in this series, plus its companion A Splendid Defiance and The Marigold Chain, set in the Restoration period, are all masterpieces in their own right. Many of Stella Riley’s fictitious characters throughout the series make repeat appearances – some with stories of their own – such as Gabriel Brandon, Venetia Clifford, Eden Maxwell, Francis Langley and Justin Ambrose. So well-drawn and developed are these characters that they are almost indistinguishable from the nonfictional, historical military and political characters with whom they interact. Under the author’s clever hand, these nonfictional personalities are no longer just figures on canvases in art galleries or names in dusty archived records. Seen through the eyes of the author, they are living, breathing men who had difficult decisions to make and worries to contend with.

One thing Ms. Riley does particularly well is to show both sides of the argument in a fair and unbiased way. There was one particular conversation between two friends that jumped out at me. It clearly and succinctly explained how and why families and friends found themselves on opposing sides, and highlighted the sheer futility and difficulties faced by such families and friends in this situation. Eden Maxwell and Francis Langley have been friends since boyhood and discuss their differing beliefs on Parliament versus King. Neither allows their opinions to affect their long standing friendship but simply agree to differ. Obviously, once the first war begins in earnest, they do not actively pursue their friendship, although throughout the series, they occasionally meet up and continue to be friends. The two are also inextricably linked by Eden’s marriage to Francis’s sister, Celia, which in itself has its own problems, because she, like her brother, is a royalist. The tension in the Maxwell household, as the war gathers momentum, is tangible and has long reaching consequences for all of them.

The waters are further muddied by the differing religions of political leaders, officers and soldiers fighting on both sides. Complicated and difficult it may be to understand, but the author again explains the different reasons and factions in a way that can be understood by the layman. All in all, a mix of differing religious beliefs and fears only added to the almost impossible task of uniting a country and increased the problems of an already hopeless war which tore families and communities asunder.

Luciano relentlessly pursues his quarry, finding and dealing with each culprit in turn, until only one is left. At the same time, he is fighting a losing battle against his obvious love for Kate (aka Caterina) Maxwell, until eventually he can no longer deny his feelings, even though he fears his love may place her in danger.  The story hurtles towards its emotional and heart-rending culmination, an ending the author has plucked, in part, from the historic archives – the final falling of the long besieged Cavalier stronghold, Basing House – merciless, bloody and horrific- she cleverly intertwines it with the last piece of Luciano’s puzzle. In fact, the final 25% of the book, as all the threads come together, is truly nail-biting stuff. Stella Riley ratchets up the tension and emotion, drawing graphic pictures of the horrors of war to the point where one can almost smell the gunpowder and witness the horror and terror of the participants. At its centre is Luciano, his formidable Turkish man servant, Selim, his beloved Caterina, and the last man who must face Luciano’s reckoning.  Here I must add that, as much as I loved reading it, the narration by master-of-his-craft, Alex Wyndham, adds another dimension to an already fabulous book which, were it a play, would certainly earn a standing ovation.

Surely The Black Madonna must be an actor’s dream to perform – for perform it Mr. Wyndham does, with quite outstanding success. I can only imagine the challenges he faced with such a huge cast of characters of both sexes. Knowing this story well, having read it at least three times, I had pre-conceived ideas on how I thought the characters would sound, and I wasn’t disappointed. Luciano’s voice is ‘like warm silk’, to quote the author, and it’s at its silkiest best when he talks to his Caterina. Luciano has a multifaceted nature, one side of which – his inherent aloneness – I felt very keenly and Mr. Wyndham portrays this facet of his character with sensitivity. Okay, Luciano deliberately cultivates it in order to stay safe, and of course as a money lender was reviled by the very people who were in debt to him, and he had learnt to trust very few people. Nevertheless, at times, I felt sad for him. He shrouds himself in an aloofness and, on occasions, adopts a quiet, deadly insolence, which is reserved for those people he holds in contempt. Alex Wyndham captures the many facets of Luciano’s character to perfection; the subtle nuances of his moods – silky smooth, deadly dangerous and insolence.

There are far too many individuals to mention separately, but a few characters really stand out for me in Alex Wyndham’s portrayal of them.

  • Richard Maxwell – a quiet likeable man with oodles of integrity
  • Eden Maxwell – a no-nonsense career soldier who begins by being quietly happy with his lot but, as a result of betrayal, becomes embittered and morose, which shows in his voice
  • Celia Maxwell, Eden’s wife – a querulous and waspish woman who is easy to dislike
  • Francis Langley – the languid, long-haired, elegantly attired, devil-may-care, Cavalier officer, who would rather read poetry than go to war
  • Gianetta, Luciano’s little sister – highly strung, excitable and volatile
  • Finally the Irish Catholic patriot, Liam Aherne – quiet and stern but with a delightful, lilting Irish accent

These are only a handful of the diverse cast Alex Wyndham juggles with.

Each time I hear this performer, I wonder anew how on earth he’ll do it, but I’m never disappointed with his performance. A consummate and professional actor with a voice like ‘warm silk’, to quote the author again in her description of Luciano, but which also fits Alex Wyndham to a tee.

The Black Madonna is another triumph for Stella Riley and her narrator, Alex Wyndham. A magnificent blend of historical fiction and historical romance, with the emphasis on the thoroughly and accurately researched history. The plotting is first rate – intriguing and plausible, and the romance is slow developing – deep and abiding.

MY VERDICT: A heart-warming and romantic saga of family, love and war. Simply not to be missed!  We can only hold our breath and hope that Ms. Riley is able to have the rest of the series recorded. 

 

REVIEW RATING: STELLAR 5 STARS

NARRATION RATING: STELLAR 5 STARS

SENSUALITY RATING: WARM

 

Roundheads and Cavaliers series (click on the book covers for more details):

 The Black Madonna (Roundheads and Cavaliers, #1) by Stella Riley Garland of Straw (Roundheads and Cavaliers, #2) by Stella Riley The King's Falcon (Roundheads and Cavaliers, #3) by Stella Riley Lords of Misrule (Roundheads and Cavaliers, #4) by Stella Riley

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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The Marigold Chain Audio Book

Genre: Historical Romance (17th Century – Restoration England, 1666)

Cover Blurb:

England, 1666; the year when people who take prophecy seriously believe that the world is going to end.

For Chloe Herveaux, marriage to wild, unpredictable Alex Deveril offers escape from a home she hates. For Alex, waking up with an epic hangover, the discovery that he has acquired a bride is an unwelcome shock. But while the marriage remains in name only, other forces are gathering.

England is once again at war with the Dutch and Prince Rupert suspects that sabotage is at work within the fleet. Instructed to find and stop the traitor, Alex enters a dark labyrinth of intrigue – where no life is safe, and nothing is what it seems.

Chloe, meanwhile, navigates the shark-infested waters of Charles the Second’s Court and plots a course of her own aimed at financial independence. But as the intriguing facets of Mr Deveril’s personality are gradually revealed to her, Chloe’s mock-marriage becomes fraught with difficulties – the greatest of which is Mr Deveril himself.

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The Marigold Chain was my very first book by Stella Riley and I loved it from beginning to end, consequently it has a special place in my heart and on my keeper shelf. After my first reading, more than two years ago, its characters, both main and secondary, remain with me as clearly as if I’d just put the book down. I couldn’t have been happier when I heard a whisper that the supremely talented Alex Wyndham was to record it and waited with much anticipation for its release. And, oh my…but it was worth the wait.

Set during Restoration England, The Marigold Chain follows eight months in the lives of Alex Deveril and Chloe Hervaux – a man and woman thrown together by unusual and unorthodox circumstances. The real events unfolding around their seemingly ordinary lives add to the thrill of this wonderfully rich story, in which our couple become well and truly embroiled. The fabulous cast of historical figures are so cleverly interwoven with fictitious characters that it is difficult to know for sure who lived and who is a figment of the author’s fertile imagination.

One night, Alex Deveril is out on a drinking spree to end all drinking sprees, having been rejected by the woman he believes he loves. Alex is outrageous and unconventional at the best of times but, this time, he outdoes even himself. Whilst involved in a card party at the home of Chloe’s step-brother, she is offered as the stake in a game gone too far, when her odious brother runs out of funds to pay his debts. Never one to turn down a challenge, Alex accepts and wins. To be fair to Chloe, she does try to refuse, but her step-brother (no blood relative) is vile and has become a nuisance with his unwanted, and some might say, incestuous advances towards her, and she is desperate to leave his house and her life of drudgery behind. Still drunk beyond reason, Alex convinces Chloe to leave with him in the dead of night and insists on rousing a clergyman, even going as far as shimmying up a drainpipe in order to persuade him into marrying them. Drunk or not, Alex knows what is right and the wedding takes place. While Alex sleeps off his excesses, Chloe has a long night of contemplation and faces up to the realisation that she may have taken unfair advantage of Alex in her haste to escape her brother. She should have refused his drunken proposal, no matter how gorgeous he is or how enticing the prospect of being his wife might be. After discussing the matter, they decide that eventually they will pursue an annulment, although neither is in a hurry to be free, each for reasons of their own.  So, for the time being, their marriage-in-name-only, will remain just that.

The year is 1666 and the country is still struggling and in debt, after years of civil war followed by an horrendous loss of life as a result of the plague. Now, to add to her problems, England is at war with the Dutch and France is about to join in. Alex has recently returned from soldering after fifteen years of fighting, both as man and boy, to discover that his birth right has been stolen during his absence. Always fiercely loyal to the crown, like his father before him, Alex cannot dispel the unfairness of it and, as a result, has become an embittered and acerbic young man. And yet, he retains the respect and affection of his peers who fought with him and know his loyalty and friendship are worth having. Alex’s inner group of friends who remember him as he used to b – charming, witty and reckless – are generally willing to overlook his biting tongue and tolerate his much-changed demeanour.  For his part, Alex does his best to push his friends away, but they refuse to abandon him, although there are moments when they wonder why. Then his occasional flashes of breath-taking charm, ever ready wit and obvious intelligence, remind them that the Alex they knew still exists. Chloe is no different to his friends; she was besotted with Alex from the moment she met him, and still is. However, an inner awareness tells her that her feelings must be kept hidden, not only to avoid his derision, but also because a strong sense of justice tells her that Alex must never feel trapped into staying married to her.

Chloe’s character and person are beautifully drawn – a compelling young woman with an understated beauty and gentle innocence. However, she is no pushover and knows how to run and care for a household on a limited budget, after suffering under her step-brother’s roof as an unpaid housekeeper. Alex may not realise it, but he has met his match… and his love. Chloe tolerates his moods, but only up to a point, and then quietly but firmly puts him in his place. She often risks his displeasure and bad humour by intervening in his plans – for his own good – such as when she realises he is about to embark on something he will later regret. Often, her intervention is done with the collusion of his friends, all of whom fall under her guileless spell and also realise, fairly soon after the marriage, that Chloe could be Alex’s salvation.

Their relationship develops through various phases; at first as strangers, then continuing onto friendship and confidantes and finally to the inevitable and, in true Stella Riley fashion, she grows their love story slowly and sweetly. At first, Alex accepts his wife’s company as just another person around him to be tolerated and often ignored, until without him realising it, she becomes necessary to him. He nicknames her Marigold from the beginning and, at one point, on her first visit to court with him, he presents her with a pretty necklace, the Marigold Chain. Alex has obviously chosen it with care, although he is very blasé about the giving of it to her. Its colour (matching her hair) and simplistic, understated beauty is Chloe to a tee and she cherishes it. I love the classy and unusual titles this author chooses for her books, but of all of them, The Marigold Chain is my favourite, given the special significance of this particular title.

While Alex is well aware of his flaws but unrepentant, he is also a highly intelligent man of unequivocal integrity. His previously proven military prowess has earned him the trust and respect of Prince Rupert, cousin to King Charles II and Commander of the Naval Fleet. Together with his friend Giles Beckwith, Alex is contracted into covertly searching for a possible traitor in their midst. There is no actual proof that a traitor exists, just a few unexplained ‘accidents’ which have cost the English Navy, ships and lives. The ensuing events are fast moving, exciting, and exactly what an adrenalin junkie like Alex Deveril needs to shake him out of the doldrums.

Stella Riley covers so much in this story; a snapshot of warfare, death and injury on board his Majesty’s ships during wartime; the Great Fire of London, where we see the cramped wooden buildings in their narrow lanes, the fire eating its way relentlessly through London and the despair of her inhabitants as they fight fruitlessly to save their homes, and then the final devastating toppling of Paul’s cathedral. The licentious, gluttonous, fashion obsessed court of the womanising, but shrewd and enigmatic, Charles II, and the despair of his Queen as he flaunts his mistresses are all brought vibrantly to life by this talented author, whose love and obvious knowledge of her subject is indisputable. We are not overwhelmed with extraneous historical detail but rather Ms. Riley sets out the facts clearly and precisely and in a way that makes the reader/listener desirous to learn more and filling in the gaps with intelligent probabilities and a delicious romance to boot.

Alex Wyndham has quite a job on his hands as he handles, with great aplomb, the sarcastic, cynical, Alex Deveril. It would be all to easy to dislike this young man, but I loved his complex character.  Alex Wyndham captures him to perfection, showing along the way, with his intuitive interpretation of the author’s writing, that here is a decent and honourable young man who has had a raw deal and only needs that certain someone in his life to redeem him. Alex’s reckless disregard for his own safety sees him hurtling towards his own ruin and his friends, understanding the reasons, do their best to mitigate his behaviour. Alex Wyndham, consummate actor that he is, has to deal with all of this – an Alex Deveril who does not suffer fools gladly and thinks he neither wants or needs anyone, but who then undergoes a lightbulb moment of such epic proportions that he is left reeling from the shock and how to deal with it. A lesser actor could not have pulled off this transformation so effectively and believably.

Mr. Wyndham’s tone of voice undergoes a subtle change, but it is so well done that we are aware that we are still listening to Alex Deveril, an angry young man for the most part of the story, but one who suddenly finds himself again, after a long time in the wilderness. You immediately know that Alex Deveril’s feelings have undergone a colossal change simply by Alex Wyndham’s alteration in inflection while still retaining the recognisable ‘voice’ he has adopted for Alex Deveril. I was so taken by Alex Wyndham’s performance that I listened to this same part a few times just to enjoy and marvel at his expertise. There are a couple of places where he has to deal with Stella Riley at her emotional best – real tear jerkers – I promise – but no spoilers. All I’ll say is that listeners will not be disappointed by Stella Riley’s words or Alex Wyndham’s rendering of them – but have your tissues ready. Oh…and he sings in a couple of places AND quotes poetry – I could go on and on – just sit back and enjoy.

Before reading The Marigold Chain, I’m ashamed to say I knew little about The English Civil War and the Restoration. It was a war which split families apart and ravaged our country for the best part of ten years, and saw an anointed King beheaded. How could I not have been interested? However, this has all changed now because I have become totally hooked by Stella Riley’s world of Cavaliers and Roundheads. I strongly recommend the uninitiated to listen to The Marigold Chain and A Splendid Defiance and to read her English Civil War series, beginning with The Black Madonna which, by the way, is stupendous.

MY VERDICT: I can’t imagine anyone who enjoys superbly researched history, compelling and intriguing characters (fictitious and historical), a fast paced and exciting mystery, coupled with a bone melting romance, not loving THE MARIGOLD CHAIN. And let’s not forget the exceptionally talented, Alex Wyndham, who adds that extra spark of brilliance. Highly recommended.

 

 REVIEW RATING: STELLAR 5 STARS

 NARRATION REVIEW RATING: STELLAR 5 STARS

 SENSUALITY RATING: WARM

 

 

 

 

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THE FABULOUS STELLA RILEY HAS A NEW AUDIO BOOK OUT, NARRATED BY THE EQUALLY FABULOUS ALEX WYNDHAM.

The Marigold Chain Audio Book

Genre: Historical Romance (Restoration, 1666)

Cover Blurb

It is 1666 – the year when people who take prophecy seriously believe that the world is going to end.

For Chloe Herveaux – twenty years old, half-French and practical – marriage to wild, unpredictable Alex Deveril offers escape from a home she hates. For Alex, it is a refuge of a different kind. But while the marriage remains in name only and both, for reasons of their own, agree to seek an annulment, other forces are gathering.

England is once again at war with the Dutch and Prince Rupert, now commanding the Royal Navy, suspects that sabotage is at work within the fleet. Instructed to find the arch-traitor, Alex enters a dark labyrinth of intrigue – where no life is safe and nothing is what it seems.

Chloe, meanwhile, navigates the malice and scandal of Charles II’s licentious Court and plots a course of her own aimed at financial independence. But as the surprising facets of Mr Deveril’s personality are gradually revealed to her, the long-awaited annulment becomes a double-edged sword.

Absorbed in his search for a traitor, Alex spares little thought for his bride – until a hot June night on the Falcon Stairs when he and Chloe stand united by tragedy.

As the flames of the Great Fire sweep over London, Alex and Chloe face their ultimate test. Their world is at risk … their choices may save it.

♥♥♥♥♥♥

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