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(Glasgow and Clydebank Sagas, #1)

 Genre: Historical Romance (Glasgow, mainly during the Depression and WWII)

 Cover Blurb (Amazon):

A warm and poignant story of love, triumph over adversity and the building of the great ocean liner, the Queen Mary, set in Clydebank and the West of Scotland during the Hungry Thirties. Times are hard, but a close-knit community always manages to find a way to laugh at its troubles.

Robbie Baxter is the boy next door, the man Kate Cameron loves like a brother, the man who’s always ready to give her a shoulder to cry on, but it’s Jack Drummond who dazzles her. Kate meets him when she finally achieves her goal of attending classes at Glasgow School of Art in pursuit of her dreams of becoming an artist.

When Jack Drummond shows his true colours, it’s Robbie Kate turns to. Yet she cannot tell him the truth, which means that their growing happiness is a fragile flower, based on a secret which could blow their love and their family to pieces in an instant.

 ♥♥♥♥♥♥

This was a delightfully real, sometimes poignantly sad, but ultimately beautiful tale of Glasgow and its inhabitants. Set mainly during the Depression and WWII, it journeys through eight decades of the life and loves of Kathleen Cameron or Kate as she is mostly known. Her life is alternately joyous and heart-breaking, yet still she triumphs.

The story begins in 1924 when Kate Cameron is 16 and lives in a Glasgow tenement with her father Neil, mother Lily, sisters Jessie and Pearl, and little brother Davy. The family is poor but fiercely proud. Amongst other families sharing the same house are the Baxters, Robbie being the most prominent, as he has loved Kate and will continue to love her through many trials and tribulations. The two families share everything – their happiness, sorrows, even their baking and crockery when needs must. Ms. Craig describes how they prepare for Hogmanay – the scrubbing and cleaning, the first footing of a tall dark man with a lump of coal and black bun, and then the hooting of the ships on The Clyde. All of this I have heard from my own mother, a Glaswegian by birth, and therefore close to my heart.

Kate is a talented young woman and, unusual for the time, is still at school at the age of 16, but it is her father’s desire to see his favourite child continue with her schooling. Kate’s ambition is to attend the Glasgow School of Art, designed by Charles Rennie Mackintosh, one of the many facts incorporated into the story by Maggie Craig to set the scene and stimulate the senses. For anyone unfamiliar with Glasgow, this is a beautiful, iconic building in the Art Nouveau style. Then Kate’s father is laid off work at the Donaldson’s shipyard, along with a large proportion of the workforce of Glasgow. The Great Depression has begun and Kate is finally forced to leave school by her shrewish mother and made to look for work to supplement the family’s meagre income. She is fortunate enough to have the support of two of her former schoolteachers who recommend her for an apprenticeship as a tracer at Donaldson’s.

Two years on, her fairy godmothers further help by pulling strings to obtain Kate a bursary to the School of Art, where she attends as a part time student, and there becomes friends with Marjorie Donaldson, her employer’s daughter. Fellow student, Jack Drummond – upper-class, handsome, elegant, languid, idle, cynical, and a friend of Marjorie’s – begins a charm offensive on Kate but his intentions are far from honourable. Unbeknownst to Kate, he has aspirations of marrying Marjorie for her money. Eventually after plying Kate with champagne at a lunch given at his home, Jack takes advantage of her infatuation but leaves her without a backward glance. Kate discovers that he has become engaged to Marjorie and then that she herself is pregnant. Faced with the choice of an abortion or tricking the honourable Robbie into marriage, she chooses the latter and begins her deceitful secret life with an adoring Robbie. Grace is born, to all intents and purposes a premature baby, and Robbie is in raptures over his daughter.

Robbie Baxter is the epitome of the dark, brooding, honourable hero. He worships Kate and their child and, although Kate is grateful to him, she does not believe she loves him. A few years into their marriage, it takes a visit from Marjorie and Jack to show her what a fool she has been, and it is then she realises how much she loves Robbie, who at last has the love and devotion of his ‘nut-brown maiden’ as he has always called her.

Maggie Craig has absolutely captured the poverty, lives and loves of the people of Glasgow and has a rare talent for understanding together with a real sense of place and time. She captures the hopelessness of The Great Depression, with the proud, brave men of Glasgow traipsing from one place to another in search of work; the horror of the war, both for the families and the men sent to fight; the utter devastation of the bombs being aimed at the shipyards, often missing their target and wiping out whole streets and families. I had a tear in my eye on more than one occasion during this beautiful, turbulent story.

I will always listen to the audio version when one is available, because Maggie Craig employs the talented, versatile, Scottish narrator, Leslie Mackie, who is so in tune with the author’s sensitive storytelling. Ms. Mackie’s beautifully modulated tones capture the feisty, fiercely independent Kate, the languid, slightly bored Jack Drummond, the softly spoken Neil Cameron with his gentle highland lilt, and then there is the darling Robbie Baxter. Who couldn’t love this wonderful, dignified man, so perfectly characterised by the clever Maggie Craig? Ms. Mackie employs a slightly deeper melodious tone for him – the image of this darkly beautiful, decent man so expertly conjured up by this gifted actress. Even the excited childish voice of wee Grace when her father comes home is perfectly captured. The Epilogue is enchanting too.

MY VERDICT: A magnificent feast of a story with a fitting and moving ending. Maggie Craig’s love for her City and its people is apparent in the care and thought she has poured into this wonderful tale of triumph over adversity.

 

REVIEW RATING: STELLAR 5 STARS

SENSUALITY RATING: SUBTLE

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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After Ben

(Seattle Stories, #1)

Genre: Contemporary Romance (Male/Male)

Cover Blurb (Amazon):

No more kissing a ghost…

A year after the sudden death of his longtime partner, Ben, Theo Anderson is still grieving. The last thing he’s looking for is a new lover, but as Theo discovers, sometimes life has its own plans.

The strength of his attraction to fellow gym member Peter is surprising. So is how compelling he finds Morgan, a new friend he makes online. Morgan is witty and fierce on the internet forum they frequent, while Peter is physically present in a way that’s hard to ignore.

Both men bring Theo closer to acceptance: he needs to lay Ben’s memory to rest if he’s to start afresh with a new lover.

Getting honest about the reasons for his yearlong isolation means confronting why he lost Ben… only just when he’s ready to commit, Theo finds he isn’t the only one haunted by the past.

Whether with Peter or with Morgan, choosing to love again—after Ben—might not be Theo’s toughest challenge.

♥♥♥♥♥♥

I have only recently become a fan of Con Riley’s after a personal recommendation from favourite author, Joanna Chambers, who assured me that I would love Ms. Riley’s writing and particularly After Ben. She wasn’t wrong.  What completely astounded me, and I didn’t discover this fact until after I had devoured the author’s first edition of After Ben, was that this beautiful, insightful story of love after loss was Con Riley’s debut novel.

This novel was first released in 2012 and has recently been given a bit of a face-lift and a wonderful new cover. As far as I’m concerned, and I’ve read both editions, it needed little, if anything, to improve it. As well as the changes the author has made internally, without a doubt she has played an absolute blinder in her choice of the stunning new cover, which perfectly reflects my vision of the kind, charismatic, life embracing Ben de Luca. I have a bit of a ‘thing’ about book covers and titles and, in this case, both are as classy as the writing and the story.

The author opens the story with Ben already deceased. How many writers could pull that scenario off? Well Con Riley does, and to wonderful effect. One year on, Theo Anderson is a grieving, heartbroken man, who had cut himself from friends and family, his love and partner of fifteen years having died of a heart attack at the wheel of his car. The sudden, brutal ending to their life together has left Theo incapable of coping with life other than in an automaton kind of way. Ben had been his everything – lover, friend and homemaker. His death has touched every part of Theo’s life just as his living did, and Theo is floundering without him. He immerses himself in work and pounds the treadmill at the gym feeling nothing but exhaustion. And that’s the way he prefers it – cutting himself off from family and friends is so much easier than caring again after Ben.

And then two things happen that are about to change Theo’s life once again. To help fill his lonely nights during the early days of his ‘annus horribilis’, Theo had joined a local, online political debate forum and it’s here he eventually ‘meets’ angry, argumentative, and quite obviously intelligent Morgan. Theo feels a connection to him/her immediately and I really liked how Con Riley grew this ‘friendship’ from a purely intellectual connection to begin with. And then, during one of his early morning relentless-pounding-of-the-treadmill sessions, he’s befriended by paramedic, Peter Morse, who senses Theo’s desolation – yes, he wants to help him – Peter’s a lovely guy – but his feelings are not completely altruistic – he fancies the pants off of him. These two men, each in their own way, are Theo’s salvation, pulling him back from the edge of not-giving-a-damn to the land of the living once more.

Slowly and painfully Theo begins his rehabilitation, and it is with the help of these two men that Theo starts to ‘listen’ to what Ben would have wanted for him. It soon becomes apparent that Theo will begin his ‘new normal’ with one of them and, oh my goodness, but the thought that only one of them would find happiness with the delectable Theo had me tied up in knots. I loved the characterisation of both Peter and Morgan and really couldn’t choose between them to begin with.

How did Con Riley convince me that it was okay to love again after loss? How did she put it all so perfectly into perspective that I didn’t feel that Theo was betraying the complete and utter love he had felt for Ben? The way I see it is that Theo keeps Ben with him – not a three in a bed kind of relationship –  but rather Ben is accepted by Theo’s new love as someone who has shaped the man he loves and is therefore an integral part of their relationship. I love that Theo can talk about Ben without his ‘new love’ feeling like second best. The author shows us, in her intuitive way, that Theo needs help in order to let Ben go before he can live again.

Ms. Riley, very cleverly, has her remarkable character Ben living and breathing throughout this story. She’s so skilled in the way she keeps him alive that it’s almost impossible to feel sad, revealing that she is quite obviously a caring and thoughtful people watcher, who is able to transfer what she sees around her into her characters to marvellous effect. I find that, as I get older, I really need to feel an emotional depth and caring in my reading; a writer may be technically brilliant but if he/she isn’t ‘kind’ I’m left feeling cheated. Con Riley has this elusive quality in spadesful. She has also captured ‘grief’ in all its intricacies – I’ve been there, felt what she describes, and totally agree.

I know it is a book I shall comfort read regularly. I’ve already read it twice. Ben, Theo, Morgan and Peter are superbly drawn MC’s, and there’s also a fabulous cast of secondary characters who we don’t have to say goodbye to as they reappear in later books in the series, and who help make this memorable story even more unforgettable. Just to whet your appetite, Saving Sean, the second in the Seattle series, also soon to be re-released, sees the lovely man who didn’t capture Theo’s heart find a love of his own.

MY VERDICT: This is a wonderfully emotive and beautiful read and, if you want to go all gooey inside, then I can recommend AFTER BEN wholeheartedly.

 

REVIEW RATING: STELLAR 5 STARS

SENSUALITY RATING: SIZZLING

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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A Fallen Lady.jpg

(Ladies of Scandal, #1)

Genre: Historical Romance (Regency, 1820)

Cover Blurb (Amazon):

Six years ago, to the outrage of her family and the delight of London gossips, Lady Helen Dehaven refused to marry the man to whom she was betrothed. Even more shockingly, her refusal came on the heels of her scandalous behavior: she and her betrothed were caught in a most compromising position. Leaving her reputation in tatters and her motivations a mystery, Helen withdrew to a simple life in a little village among friends, where her secrets remained hers alone.

For reasons of his own, Stephen Hampton, Lord Summerdale, is determined to learn the truth behind the tangled tale of Helen’s ruin. There is nothing he abhors so much as scandal – nothing he prizes so well as discretion – and so he is shocked to find, when he tracks Helen down, that he cannot help but admire her. Against all expectations, he finds himself forgiving her scandalous history in favor of only being near her.

But the bitter past will not relinquish Helen’s heart so easily. How can she trust a man so steeped in the culture of high society, who conceals so much? And how can he, so devoted to the appearance of propriety, ever love a fallen lady?

♥♥♥♥♥♥

This was such a beautifully written and deeply emotional love story and it has definitely made me want to read more of Elizabeth Kingston’s books.

The traumatic events of six years ago left Lady Helen Dehaven ruined in the eyes of society. It also led to an estrangement between herself and her brother, Alex, Earl of Whitemarsh, when he rejected her explanation of what happened as ‘wild, incomprehensible tales.’

Forced to flee her brother’s home, she has built a new life for herself in the rural Herefordshire village of Bartle-on-the-Glen and the rent from the Dower House, inherited from her grandmother, provides enough income to live on. Helen has a small circle of devoted friends and has earned the loyalty and respect of all those around her. But her quiet, unobtrusive life is about to be shattered by the arrival of a stranger.

I admire Helen for her courage and determination in the face of such adversity but she remains haunted by the ghosts of the past. She still feels deeply hurt by her brother’s treatment of her and I couldn’t help but be moved by her yearning for something she believes she can never have…an ordinary life.

Stephen Hampton, the younger son of the Earl of Summerdale, has a gift for discovering other people’s secrets, and his reputation for the upmost discretion has garnered him some influential friends and a position of relative power. Following the death of his elder brother from influenza two years ago and his father’s recently, Stephen is now the earl. In his position, he could easily use his skills for his own benefit, but he has ‘grown to hate tawdry secrets and intrigue’ and wants to get as far away from London as possible. An opportunity arises when the Earl of Whitemarsh, encouraged by his new wife, asks Stephen to approach his sister with a view to seeking a reconciliation, and discovering the truth of what happened six years ago. As Stephen’s Manor House is not far from Bartle-in-the Glen, he accepts.

Stephen is a man who has never really belonged anywhere and it was heart-breaking to see how his own family subjected him to ridicule and scorn. I had a real sense of the depth of loneliness he feels.

The initial meeting between Helen and Stephen does not seem very auspicious but, as they get to know each other, Helen is won over by Stephen’s friendly and easy going manner, and Stephen realises that, with Helen and her friends, he has found somewhere he truly feels he belongs.

For the first time he could remember, he belonged. He was not shut out here.

I like how Ms. Kingston develops their relationship gradually, which not only heightens the sexual tension, but also reveals what a wonderful hero Stephen is – tender, patient, amusing and protective. At the same time, it was heart-rending to see Helen struggle with her deep-seated fears.

It was a monster from the deep, dedicated to pulling her down into the depths and smothering her.

Stephen’s reputation has always been spotless and it is testament to the strength of his love for Helen that he is willing to sacrifice everything by marrying her. So, I was really frustrated by her lack of trust in him.

There are some very emotional twists and turns before they reach their Happy Ever After, which made me enjoy the delightful Epilogue even more.

I loved seeing the close bond of friendship between Helen, Marie-Anne, a woman entirely at ease with her own scandalous reputation, and Maggie, Helen’s small but fierce Irish servant.

Having lived in Herefordshire for several years, I had to grit my teeth every time Bartle-on-the-Glen was mentioned. There are glens in Scotland but not in this particular English county!

MY VERDICT: Elizabeth Kingston weaves such a compelling and intensely emotional love story with complex characters that I truly cared about. Highly recommended.


REVIEW RATING: 5/5 STARS

SENSUALITY RATING: WARM

 

Ladies of Scandal series (click on cover for more details):

A Fallen Lady (Ladies of Scandal, #1) by Elizabeth Kingston House of Cads (Ladies of Scandal, #2) by Elizabeth Kingston

 

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Genre: Contemporary Romance (Male/Male)

Cover Blurb (Amazon):

Things haven’t been going well for Cam McMorrow since he moved to Inverbechie. His business is failing, his cottage is falling apart and following his very public argument with café owner Rob Armstrong, he’s become a social outcast.

Cam needs to get away from his troubles and when his sister buys him a ticket to the biggest Hogmanay party in Glasgow, he can’t leave Inverbechie quick enough. But when events conspire to strand him in the middle of nowhere in a snowstorm, not only is he liable to miss the party, he’ll also have to ask his nemesis, Rob, for help.

♥♥♥♥♥♥

I’ve only discovered Joanna Chambers in the last couple of years and find I can’t get enough of her writing now.  Once I start one of her books I need to leave myself enough time and a clear run as I find it difficult to put it down, and this has been the case with everything of hers I’ve read and she never disappoints. There’s something special in her way of writing – an innate kindness and compassion that calls out to me. It says a lot about her writing, that because I feel the need to read everything she’s written, I’ve now even begun to enjoy some contemporaries, mostly hers, as well as my usual favourites, historical fiction and historical romance. My first by Joanna Chambers was her utterly fabulous Enlightenment series, which I chose for its compelling synopsis. It had me captivated from page one of the first book and I’ve been a fan ever since.

Rest and Be Thankful would normally have slipped through my reading net as it’s not only a contemporary but also little more than a novella. I’m generally not fond of novellas because I feel the majority of authors can’t tell a plausible story in such a short word count. However, Rest and Be Thankful is 76 pages of pure delight, which I read in one sitting in a coffee shop. I absolutely adored this heart-warmingly romantic and eloquently written little book, which is packed full of love and understanding, and I’m sure I must have had a silly grin on my face as I read the last page.

Cam McMorrow, who having been made redundant from his accountancy firm at around the same time as his relationship failed, has decided to see the positive in the situation and has seized the opportunity to change his life. Discovering that he no longer wants to sit behind a desk and, having always enjoyed the outdoor life, he has used his redundancy money, together with a further loan, to set up an outdoor activity business, which is centred in and around the village in the wilds of Scotland where he has happy memories of the holidays spent there as a child. Looking back through rose tinted glasses, he remembers the carefree time when he’d had no responsibilities, and life with his happy, loving family in their little holiday cottage had seemed like endless fun. Fast forward to adulthood, and now aged thirty, Cam is stony broke; bookings for the spring and summer are good but he hadn’t counted on his business being so seasonal. Consequently, he has no money coming in during the winter months. So, with a loan to repay, food to be bought, and the ancient heating boiler in his parents’ dilapidated holiday cottage having irretrievably broken down, he’s at an all-time low, both mentally and financially.

Cam’s sister, Eilidh, pays him a visit to invite him to a Hogmanay bash in Glasgow and insists they eat lunch together in the cafe owned by local artist, Rob Armstrong. Cam reluctantly agrees to lunch there, and we learn the reason for his reticence as his bright spark of a sister winkles out the truth. When Cam had first arrived in the village a year previously, the two men had begun a tentative friendship, enjoying a pint together in the local pub, but more importantly, there was the stirring of an attraction between them. Both had suffered in their previous relationships for different reasons. And then Cam unwittingly steps on Rob’s toes in the course of his business dealings and ends up having a very angry and public confrontation with Rob. Obviously, after this, the attraction has no chance of developing further and, worse still, Cam imagines that the villagers are taking sides and so withdraws into himself.  I felt Cam’s loneliness very keenly; it was impossible not to, such is the author’s clever and compassionate way with words.

Cam’s natural reticence doesn’t help, manifesting itself in apparent arrogance though in reality he’s far from it.  Both Cam and Rob have since had time to cool down and realise that they both overreacted. Eilidh very astutely sees that there is still something simmering under the surface between the two men. Cam sets out on his much anticipated journey to Glasgow for Hogmanay which doesn’t go to plan and that’s all I’m saying, except that we discover there’s a lot more to both men than meets the eye…

I love Joanna Chambers’ ability to have her characters jump right off the page. They’re real and multi-dimensional, coping with the everyday problems and difficulties we all have to deal with. Her observational skills are phenomenal and she has no problem in transferring them to the written page. It’s so subtle that it seems almost effortless but it’s a rare gift.

This story is eloquently written and wonderfully descriptive, with expertly developed and lovable characters, both central and secondary ones. I was completely invested in the lives of Cam and Rob, their struggles and sadnesses, and the growing attraction between these two gorgeous men who had a way to go to overcome their differences and find each other.

What’s more, Joanna Chambers’ ability to describe a scene, such that I feel as if I am right in the middle of it, is another quality of her writing I am in awe of. Here, she’s talking about a gathering snowstorm:

Already a clutch of sooty storm clouds was scudding across the horizon, bullying the last of the weak, winter daylight away and ushering in a violet-grey dusk. In that strange half-light, the colours of the landscape were oddly intense—the darkly vivid green of the sweeping hillsides, the rusty amber of the dying bracken, the silvery grey of the road itself, meandering through the glen

Can’t you just imagine it? Feel it?

MY VERDICT: This little gem of a book gets 5 stars from me and Joanna Chambers has become an auto-buy author – I’ll read anything she puts her name to. Highly recommended.

 

REVIEW RATING: 5/5 STARS

SENSUALITY RATING: HOT

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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A Kiss for Midwinter

(Brothers Sinister #1.5)

 Genre: Historical Romance (Victorian)

Cover Blurb (Amazon):

 Miss Lydia Charingford is always cheerful, and never more so than at Christmas time. But no matter how hard she smiles, she can’t forget the youthful mistake that could have ruined her reputation. Even though the worst of her indiscretion was kept secret, one other person knows the truth of those dark days: the sarcastic Doctor Jonas Grantham. She wants nothing to do with him…or the butterflies that take flight in her stomach every time he looks her way.

Jonas Grantham has a secret, too: He’s been in love with Lydia for more than a year. This winter, he’s determined to conquer her dislike and win her for his own. And he has a plan to do it.

If only his plans didn’t so often go awry…

A Kiss for Midwinter is a historical romance Christmas novella in the Brothers Sinister series.

 

First published December 2012

♥♥♥♥♥♥

This was a sweet, clever little novella. So much packed into this heart wrenching, sensitively executed short story.

At the tender age of fifteen, Lydia Charingford is diagnosed as being pregnant by a narrow minded, unsympathetic doctor, who advises her parents to have her put away because she is ruined. In the company of this physician is a young man named Jonas Grantham, about to embark on his medical training and accompanying the elderly doctor to gain experience. Warned to keep his opinions to himself, Jonas feels unable to intervene in the treatment proposed, although he does not agree with the medication prescribed – a decision he forever regrets.

Six years later Jonas returns, now a fully qualified Doctor with some ground-breaking ideas. Young, enthusiastic, tactless, sarcastic and incapable of being anything other than direct and truthful, he is on the lookout for a wife. He draws up a list of eligible young women of which Lydia, whom he does not recognise, is No.11 on said ‘wife list’. Lydia is immediately aware that this tall, good looking young man was present at the moment of her disgrace, and this knowledge puts her on the defensive. She decides she does not like him and, even after Jonas is made aware (by Lydia herself) that it was she six years earlier, Lydia is convinced he thinks her easy and could not possibly be attracted to her.

This is the catalyst for Jonas to decide that no other woman will do and he embarks on a sixteen month pursuit of Lydia, during which, due to the directness of his speech and his inability to lie, she misunderstands every remark he makes to her. To his credit, Jonas will not be turned from his goal and doggedly carries on trying to win Lydia’s heart. As a physician, he recognises that she has not recovered and is really very badly affected by her ordeal six years ago. He patiently tries to help her but his methods and manner of speech do not however endear him to her.

In an era where disgrace of this kind would have, under normal circumstances, completely ruined a young woman, Courtney Milan has tackled a taboo subject in a brave and sensitive manner.  Lydia may have escaped wider censorship with the aid of her friend Minnie and her own caring and loving parents, but she is deeply troubled and hides it with a cheerful and happy disposition. Her own worst critic, she is resigned never to allow herself to find love and is afraid of the natural urges of her own body.

There are also warm and evocative scenes with Jonas and his own father, a self-made man who is desperately ill….real tear jerkers….hankies at the ready!

MY VERDICT: 5 well deserved stars for this wonderful little gem.


REVIEW RATING: 5/5 STARS

SENSUALITY RATING: HOT

 

Brothers Sinister series (click on cover for more details):

The Governess Affair (Brothers Sinister, #0.5) by Courtney Milan The Duchess War (Brothers Sinister, #1) by Courtney Milan A Kiss For Midwinter (Brothers Sinister, #1.5) by Courtney Milan The Heiress Effect (Brothers Sinister, #2) by Courtney Milan The Countess Conspiracy (Brothers Sinister, #3) by Courtney Milan The Suffragette Scandal (Brothers Sinister, #4) by Courtney Milan Talk Sweetly to Me (Brothers Sinister, #4.5) by Courtney Milan

 

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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.

♥♥♥♥♥♥

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 Rake

Genre: Historical Romance (Regency)

Cover Blurb (Amazon):

A man’s past doesn’t have to map his fate, especially when a woman holds the key to his destiny in this timeless novel by New York Times bestselling author and legend in historical romance Mary Jo Putney.

Disinherited and disgraced, Reginald Davenport’s prospects cried for a dire end. But fate has given him one last chance at redemption–by taking his rightful place as the heir of Strickland, his lost ancestral estate. Davenport knows his way around women, yet nothing prepares him for his shocking encounter with Lady Alys Weston.

Masquerading as a man in order to obtain a position as estate manager of Strickland, Alys fled a world filled with mistrust and betrayal. She was finished with men–until Strickland’s restored owner awakens a passion she thought she would never feel. A passion that will doom or save them both…if only they can overcome their pasts…

(Note: This book was originally published in 1989 as The Rake the Reformer and then revised and republished as The Rake in 1998)

♥♥♥♥♥♥

I read that THE RAKE is regarded as one of the most popular, most beloved historical romances ever written and I can now understand why, because I loved this book and it will definitely find a place among my all-time favourites.

At the age of thirty-seven, Reggie is the archetypal rake – his life having been spent in a continual round of womanising, gambling and hard drinking. But, as details of past events in his life are revealed, I appreciated how much these have shaped his current lifestyle. I like the fact that he does not blame his present circumstances on anyone but himself; he chose the path he took and admits to making unwise decisions. (I could not help thinking how different Reggie’s life might have been had he inherited Strickland all those years ago, and not been denied his birth right by his unfeeling uncle.)

Unlike so many other hard-drinking rakes who regularly grace the pages of Historical Romances, Reggie is an alcoholic, although he has yet to recognise the fact. It is only when he starts to suffer memory losses, which are becoming more frequent and longer in duration, does he accept that his current way of life is slowly killing him. Blaming his excessive drinking, Reggie believes that he can control the habit but…

…somehow his resolution always dissolved once he swallowed his first drink.

Ms. Putney handles Reggie’s alcoholism with compassion and sensitivity, but does not gloss over the harsh reality of his struggles to stop drinking. There is one particular scene where a horrified Alys finds Reggie drinking in the library and he runs out into the night as though the demons of hell are at his heels. It is one of the most heart-rending scenes I have ever read and the moment when Alys finds him is so moving.

He stretched out his hand. She took it, her fingers far warmer than his, her clasp light and sure. Linking his fingers with hers, he brought their joined hands to his chest, against the beat of his heart. The tide of hope was running stronger now.

I like how Ms. Putney does not fall into the trap of having Reggie redeemed by the love of a good woman. He wants to overcome his alcoholism for himself alone.

He hadn’t gotten sober for Allie’s sake, or to live up to his parents’ hopes, or for anyone else. He had done it for himself.

Having a soft spot for unconventional heroines, how could I not love a heroine who is a magnificent Amazon (Reggie’s description) with mismatched eyes and has managed to hide the fact that A E Weston, who has been the highly successful steward at Strickland for four years, is not a man but a woman? The reforms she has undertaken at Strickland have made the estate prosperous and earned her the respect of all those around her. She has also created a loving family home for her three wards.

Alys may be strong and independent but deep down she is beset by insecurities. Something in her past made her flee her former life and has left her believing she is unattractive and no man would ever want her.

I enjoyed the steady development of the relationship between Reggie and Alys, and it is Ms Putney’s ability to convey the emotional connection between them that makes this unlikely pairing work so beautifully. There is an initial attraction but, more importantly, a genuine friendship is forged based on their mutual liking, respect and trust. The love scenes are not overly explicit but rather tender, sensual and romantic.

 “I am beginning to believe that you are not at all the wicked care-for-nobody that your reputation claims.”

Just like Alys, I discovered that beneath the sarcastic, rakish exterior, Reggie is intelligent, charming, fair-minded, honest and witty. He also shows a remarkable knowledge of farming and is willing to ‘muck in’ with the sheep-dipping, earning him the respect and acceptance of the estate workers. It made me see that this is the real Reggie and I was rooting for him to overcome his addiction.

Reggie admires Alys’ ability, honesty and generosity of heart, and her wit is as sharp as his own. He treats her as an equal and is always willing to listen to her ideas. Not having been a member of a loving family for so many years, it was heart-warming to see him enjoying the family dynamics between Alys and her wards and  even starts wondering what it would be like to have children of his own.

I love how Alys is a true friend to Reggie and is always there to support him whenever he needs it.,

If she could not even try to help, she was unworthy to be anyone’s friend.

When Alys reveals her secrets to Reggie, I thought his actions revealed how noble and unselfish he is. I also like the scene where Alys convinces a reluctant Reggie that they are meant to be together.

There is an interesting cast of secondary characters including:

  • Richard, Earl of Wargrave – genuinely wants to help his cousin, Reggie, and I was was so happy to see the friendship that developed between them.
  • Meredith (Merry) Spencer – Alys’ eldest ward, who is delightful and wise beyond her years.
  • Junius Harper- the priggish, self-righteous vicar
  • The Honourable Julian Markham – Reggie’s young friend who falls for Meredith.
  • Mac Cooper – Reggie’s valet, groom, butler and footman

Amid the darker elements of the story, there is also humour such as the confrontation between Reggie and Junius Harper, which almost ends in a brawl; the hilarious scene where Reggie cleverly manipulates Lord Markham into allowing his son to marry Merry and agree to Julian’s plan for the management of his estate; the various antics of Attila, Alys’ cat, and the long-suffering Nemesis, Reggie’s dog.

I loved the charming Epilogue where the various characters react to the news of Reggie and Alys’ marriage and I will let Reggie have the final word…

“And, my beloved, you have performed the miracle of your reforming career in changing me from a care-for-nobody rakehell into a faithful, adoring husband.”

MY VERDICT: What more can I say other than this is a must read!


REVIEW RATING: 5/5 STARS

 SENSUALITY RATING: WARM

 

 

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