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Posts Tagged ‘Stellar 5 Star Audiobook’

 

(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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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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Genre: Historical Romance (Regency)

Cover Blurb:

 A past dispute …

 When the irascible Lord Darracott’s eldest son dies unexpectedly, the noble family must accept their estranged Yorkshire cousin as heir apparent. They are convinced he will prove to be a sadly vulgar person, but nothing could have prepared the beleaguered family for the arrival of Major Hugo Darracott.…

A present deception…

His clever and beautiful cousin Anthea is sure there’s more to the gentle giant than Hugo’s innocent blue eyes and broad Yorkshire brogue would lead one to believe. But even she doesn’t guess what he’s capable of, until a family crisis arises and only Hugo can preserve the family’s honor, leading everybody on a merry chase in the process.…

(First published in paperback in 1959)

♥♥♥♥♥♥

A five star story and a five star plus audio experience. The extraordinary narration by Daniel Philpott brings this clever, funny, witty tale to life.

Major Hugo Darracott is summoned to Darracott House by his controlling, autocratic, manipulative grandfather. The old man has always known of his grandson’s existence, although the rest of the dysfunctional family do not. His son married a poor common Yorkshire weaver’s daughter against his wishes … or maybe, unbeknown to him, not so poor, or so common. Following the death of his sons and a grandson, Hugh is next in line and, despite his best efforts, Lord Darracott cannot disinherit him.

Hugo is a large amiable man with a determined streak and, despite all outward appearances, he is clever and wily, and very quickly recognises that his aristocratic family thinks him a gormless, cloddish, country bumpkin. And so he deliberately proceeds to live up to their expectations by pulling the wool over their eyes. He exaggerates a broad Yorkshire accent – with hilarious results. One of his cousins, the indolent, sarcastic Vincent, unkindly nicknames him Ajax after the blockish meathead in one of Shakespeare’s plays, Troilus and Cressida. Vincent particularly resents Hugo’s turning up as he himself would have been once removed from inheriting without the appearance of this, never before heard of cousin.

How Hugo induces this eclectic mix of, “up their own backsides” relatives, to like and respect him is clever, funny and endearing. His grandfather has decided that Hugo will marry another cousin, Lady Anthea Darracott, for the dual purposes of bringing him some respectability and also marrying off his granddaughter, who will continue to keep the clod up to snuff and not embarrass the family. Both Anthea and Hugo appear to be against this idea when it is first suggested. However, it doesn’t take long, before Hugo realises that marriage is exactly what he would like to happen. How he goes about convincing Anthea to not only like him, but to care for him….well, I thought it rather lovely.

Other reviewers have commented that this is not a very romantic tale but I think it is – and sweetly so. It is also funny and farcical but has a cleverly written plot. Hugo is a most likeable character – large and apparently guileless – but, of course, he is not, being a well-educated Major, recently of a cavalry regiment, and definitely nobody’s fool. With some skill, he has the entire Darracott family doing exactly what he wishes. The females in the family are the first to recognise this fact.

I loved the wonderful narration by Daniel Philpott; he pitches his voice for each character so perfectly that male and female, young and older are entirely believable and recognisable. Hugo’s Yorkshire accent is plausible when he is laying it on thick to appear cloddish, or when he reverts to his well-educated self with a commanding demeanour and just a very slight Yorkshire burr. Mr. Philpott manages to turn Georgette Heyer’s excellent story into a fabulous one.

MY VERDICT: I highly recommend the audio version to any lover of Ms. Heyer’s work or why not just become a convert? Devotees of Regency Historical Romance won’t be disappointed.

 

REVIEW RATING: 5/5 STARS

NARRATION RATING: STELLAR 5 STARS

SENSUALITY RATING: KISSES

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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Cadenza Audiobook.jpg

(Rockliffe, #6)

Genre: Historical Romance (Georgian – 1778)

Cover Blurb:

The performance finished in a flourish of technical brilliance and the young man rose from the harpsichord to a storm of applause.

Julian Langham was poised on the brink of a dazzling career when the lawyers lured him into making a catastrophic mistake. Now, instead of the concert platform, he has a title he doesn’t want, an estate verging on bankruptcy … and bewildering responsibilities for which he is totally unfitted.
And yet the wreckage of Julian’s life is not a completely ill wind. For Tom, Rob and Ellie it brings something that is almost a miracle … if they dare believe in it.

Meanwhile, first-cousins Arabella Brandon and Elizabeth Marsden embark on a daring escapade which will provide each of them with a once-in-a-lifetime experience. The adventure will last only a few weeks, after which everything will be the way it was before. Or so they think. What neither of them expects is for it to change a number of lives … most notably, their own.

And there is an additional complication of which they are wholly unaware.
The famed omniscience of the Duke of Rockliffe.

 ♥♥♥♥♥♥

After five books in her fabulous Rockliffe series, Stella Riley is finally (and sadly) bringing the series to a close.

But what a swan song!  CADENZA has two compelling love stories at its centre. And who knew that, as well as being an historian (English Civil War – more about that later) of some considerable repute, she is also a knowledgeable and talented musician who has quite simply astounded me with her scholarship, research, and personal knowledge of the world of classical music, and in particular, the harpsichord? 

I am a huge fan of this author who is both an eloquent and creative writer, and each time we are treated to a new book there is never any danger of repetition. Cadenza is a feast for the senses and it’s a treat worth waiting for – from the first page to the last. Each book in the Rockliffe series is quite unique, apart from the ever-present, but fascinating characters who have each had their own stories told in preceding books and who are always in evidence and add something extra special as the series progresses.

Cadenza centres around the world of music with the main character, Julian Langham, being a gifted and supremely talented, harpsichordist – a virtuoso in fact. Julian’s character is unlike any other I have ever encountered in Historical Romance. Since he was old enough to reach a keyboard, he has studied and played almost to the exclusion of all else and was destined to be a musician. At the age of twenty-eight and just teetering on the brink of success in his chosen career, his world of playing and composing is brought to an abrupt halt by a disreputable firm of lawyers who con him into putting his career on hold ‘briefly’ and leaving Vienna to return to the country of his birth to take responsibility for a crumbling, debt ridden estate, and an earldom he neither wants nor even knew he was heir to, so obscure was his claim.

Having lived in the world of music for most of his life, suddenly being faced with the reality of being responsible for his predecessor’s three feral illegitimate offspring and his bewildered tenants, and with debts and problems he cannot ever hope to meet or solve, has the effect on him of being doused by a bucket of cold water, especially when he realises there is no going back. The only tiny (and it is minute) light is a badly abused harpsichord which has been left in a sadly neglected state and is in pieces in the library. At the end of each long, hard day toiling on the estate, Julian begins to painstakingly restore it. Not only is Stella Riley a musician, but she has also carefully researched – with quite remarkable understanding – the inner workings of this instrument which shows in the terminology she uses as she describes Julian slowly beginning to restore it to working order.

Julian may be gentle and slightly vague but he has an honestness, as rigid as a streak of iron, running through his backbone and, although he may not know what to do, he can’t be faulted for failing to do his best – rolling up his sleeves and working alongside his tenants – all the while slowly dying inside without his beloved music to sustain him. His obvious integrity and his determination not to increase rents, even though he desperately needs the money, earns him the respect of the locals and his tenants, not least the local doctor and his wife who befriend and help him as he flounders from one crisis to another. The children, whom he has tracked down and ensconced in the dilapidated nursery, are in turns angry and mistrustful, apart from the youngest, Ellie, who simply accepts him at face value. Tom and Rob are older, and Tom in particular – the twelve-year-old, self-elected protector of the threesome – doesn’t trust his motives. Why should Julian want them? No one has ever cared or wanted them before. Watching him win the boys’ trust, especially Tom’s, is heart-warming. Julian doesn’t employ artifice, he doesn’t know how to – he’s simply himself. In fact, it is his wholly innocent and sincere attitude in his dealings with the children which highlights the kind of man he truly is.

The doctor and his wife realise that Julian needs help, especially with the children and the running of his home, so they propose he employs a housekeeper-cum-governess and set about advertising for a suitable candidate. Elizabeth (Lizzie) Marsden, who wishes to help her family out financially, applies and, after some correspondence, in which she infers a greater age and experience than she has, is offered the position for a trial period. No-one could predict the outcome this action precipitates – a series of events, which once set into motion, escalates and forever changes Julian’s life and those of the children.

Meanwhile another drama is playing out at the home of Arabella Brandon, youngest of the four siblings at Brandon Lacey, where Arabella (Belle) has received the news that she has been jilted, after a three-year betrothal to her soldier fiancé who has not returned from the Colonial wars, instead marrying and settling in America. Her family, in particular her mother, want her to go to London for the season and she is reluctant to do so. She’s far from broken-hearted by the blow her ex-fiancé has dealt her, but, for reasons of her own, is not interested in husband hunting at present. Her closest friend, Lizzie, who happens to be her first cousin, would love a season in London but her clergyman father forbids it, even though the Duke of Rockliffe, a distant cousin of the girls’ mothers’, is happy to sponsor both of them with the aid of his Duchess. Lizzie, a dutiful daughter, realises the futility of trying to persuade her father and has instead begun the process of finding suitable employment.

Belle is the most outgoing and vivacious of the two cousins and I was drawn to her immediately. She is, of course, the one who proposes the outrageous plan which will benefit both of them – she will take up the position Lizzie has just been offered as housekeeper/governess to the children of the Earl of Chalfont and Lizzie will travel to London as the guest of the duke and duchess. The only fly in the ointment being that they must take on the guise of each other. Of course, neither girl gives much thought to the cause and effect of their actions, although to be fair it takes some persuading on Belle’s part. But, eventually realising that it will give Belle some much-needed breathing space, Lizzie agrees and at least she will get her season. After their adventure, the girls will simply return to their old lives – not quite so simple, as we discover.

All goes to plan to begin with. The girls swap clothes, prime Belle’s reluctant lady’s maid and set off together. They part ways some distance from Brandon Lacey as agreed and each travel to their respective destination. Matters start to go awry when Belle arrives at Chalfont and the doctor who meets her is surprised to see how much younger she is than her letter indicated. Even worse, Julian is horrified as she is ‘far too pretty’ and he considers sending her packing. The doctor talks him into giving her a trial period, as she has already won him over with her forthright and practical manner. Julian has had limited experience with the opposite sex and is, quite frankly, terrified of women. He initially appears rude although Belle soon realises, with some surprise, that he is simply painfully shy. The truth is that Julian is deeply affected by Belle, much to his consternation. He is the one who thinks her ‘far too pretty’, whereas most people, including the doctor, think her ‘passably pretty’. A clear case of ‘beauty is in the eye of the beholder’. Not only is she ‘much too pretty’ but her warm, infectious laugh ‘does something to his insides’. I loved this and it is mentioned quite a few times throughout the story – he finds himself aware of her laugh and waits for it – it lifts his spirits and he is always affected in the same way. Of course, as a musician with a highly developed sense of hearing, he would notice such a thing whereas most others wouldn’t. The spark between them is definitely there, and Ms. Riley grows it slowly and sensitively until both are equally smitten with the other. Belle has grown up with three handsome brothers and is therefore not immediately taken in by Julian’s undeniable gorgeousness. But he has something rare which she’s drawn to – he’s totally unaware of his own physical appeal. He never attempts to dress up, in fact, most of the time, he’s downright scruffy, his hair overlong and untidy. She is impressed by his innate kindness, gentleness and thoughtfulness and moved by his complete disregard for what others may think of his taking in three illegitimate children and more – actually loving them.

When Belle realises the extent of his musical talent and what the lack of performing is doing to him, she is resolved to do something for him. It doesn’t take her long to learn that he will shrivel up and die emotionally if he is denied his music. She sets her mind to thinking of ways to help him with the estate. Having grown up at Brandon Lacey observing her brothers using tried and tested methods, set in motion during the English Civil War by their Great-Great-Grandfather, Gabriel, she is resolved to beg her eldest brother’s assistance. Extremely astute, Belle realises that to perform – as he must – Julian needs an estate running in the black to free him for what life intended for him. Belle is on a mission and that’s because she’s finally in love. Eventually the two share a kiss, no more, but it is sensual and loving and both realise that something monumental has occurred. Stella Riley does this so well – she can imply sensuality and sexuality without the need for explicit bedroom scenes.

As Belle is settling into Chalfont, Lizzie has a roadside catastrophe when her coach is damaged and she narrowly avoids serious injury obliging her to accept help from a passing traveller. Ralph, Earl of Sherbourne, isn’t too pleased that his journey has been interrupted by a dripping wet maiden in distress. But, being the consummate gentleman, he does what he must. In the end, with the roads impassable because of heavy rain, Lizzie is forced to spend two nights in his company. All goes well and nothing of importance happens, other than Lizzie becoming more and more intrigued by Ralph’s dark and brooding attractiveness, but he is uncommunicative, preferring to read his Greek copy of the Iliad than converse, except when he must. He does nothing that Lizzie could take the exception to. In short, he does not compromise her other than unwittingly and unwillingly having to escort her to safety. Lizzie is unaware that Ralph has a scandalous past and, without warning, it rises up to bite both of them. They are seen by two ladies travelling in the opposite direction who have stopped for refreshments at the same inn; these ladies put two and two together and come up with five. Sparks fly, especially as one of them quite evidently knows him well.

Stella Riley has set herself quite a task, Ralph Sherbourne is not a character I thought to be redeemable. In Hazard he treated his half-sister, Genevieve, quite abominably. However, we learn that there is so much more to him than meets the eye and the circumstances surrounding the reasons why society shunned him are revealed, although only in confidence to Rockliffe who consequently has a new respect for him. Plus, against the odds, Lizzie likes him and refuses to believe badly of him. It is this unadulterated acceptance of him which surprises and sees him start to thaw from the austere, unapproachable man he has always been. I sensed his deep, black loneliness, keenly. I felt deeply sorry for him, especially when we see him with the Rockliffe ‘gang’ and he secretly envies the camaraderie they share, something he has never experienced. From detesting him in Hazard, I now wanted him to be happy and it seems that vicarage bred Lizzie could be the one so this was quite a turnabout. Ms. Riley couldn’t make everyone love him – that would have been totally implausible, but she’s done an excellent job in at least beginning his redemption with the help of Lizzie. He is understandably bitter – no one has ever believed in him, especially without knowing the facts of his duel and the reasons for it, which when revealed are quite shocking. I certainly didn’t see it coming. There is one particular scene, which again I can’t go into, but which had me rooting for Lizzie and Ralph as she nails her colours to the mast – superb! Ms. Riley at her best.

By now the fat is in the fire for both girls – their subterfuge has been discovered – how could it not? Rock is omniscient and never misses a trick. Once they are unmasked, there is so much to be sorted out to avoid irreversible damage to the reputations of both girls. I won’t go into how, where or what, as this is such a complex story and so deliciously different. And you, dear reader, need to absorb and enjoy! Let’s just say that, as usual Rock is a ‘rock’. His humour, dry wit and urbanity steal the show (I know I say this in every review, but it’s so true and Ms Riley didn’t name this series Rockliffe for nothing).

I promised earlier to mention the Brandon Lacey connection. Fans of Stella Riley will most probably have read her English Civil War series. If not – please do – you will not be disappointed. I myself have only just completed Garland of Straw in which Gabriel and Venetia Brandon are the hero and heroine of that amazing story and are the Great-Great-Grandparents of the current younger generation and I absolutely adored it. My point is, however, that Gabriel was almost bankrupt himself and, using his common sense, set in motion a method of farming which was highly successful and has by the time of Cadenza been used for generations. Belle persuades her brother, Max, to help Julian. I found the connection fascinating and, if I hadn’t read Garland, would probably have just skirted over it. And, by the way, having just mentioned Belle’s eldest brother Max… oh my! Please, please, Ms. Riley, having given us a taste of this gorgeous man – we need more!

Two compelling romances – although my favourite was Julian and Belle, only because they are a couple like no other. And just wait until you see Julian in musical action. I can say no more, other than, gone is the awkward, self-deprecating man and I can honestly guarantee that your heart will melt.

I believe the author intends to develop the Brandon connection (there are three unmarried brothers). I do hope so because I’m not ready to say goodbye to Rock and co.

I would imagine that Cadenza has been Alex Wyndham’s biggest challenge to date in so far as Ms. Riley’s books are concerned. The slow and intense emotional build-up in The Mésalliance and the complexities of Adrian’s character in The Player, both of which are particular favourites of mine, held that distinction for level of difficulty and performance brilliance until now, because Cadenza has also been awarded a special place in my heart; it has both intense emotional build-up and complexity on so many different levels.

Alex Wyndham has performed Stella Riley’s large cast of characters, accumulated over the six books in the series, to perfection. Keeping track would have taxed a less talented performer. He, however, makes it appear effortless.  I wondered how he would deal with the many facets of Julian Langham’s character – not that I doubted, of course – I just wondered and waited… with anticipation, and I was not disappointed. This is one book that is definitely improved by its conversion into audible, but only because of this actor’s consummate skill. The musical content in particular is brought to vibrant vivacity by him and I wondered as I listened – enthralled – how many readers may have missed the brilliance of the author’s writing if their preference is reading and not listening. Her wit and talent is also superbly highlighted; Arabella’s pert and cheeky, lady’s maid, Sherbourne’s valet, with his outrageous remarks and innuendoes, who quite obviously knows how far he can push his apparently formidable employer, and the incomparable Sebastian Audley, whose cat calls and cheeky remarks, which are so much a part of his character created in The Wicked Cousin, are interspersed throughout the latter part of the story. Clever Mr. Wyndham for so perfectly interpreting the author’s intentions for her characters and her eloquent and witty narrative.

I have reviewed Alex Wyndham’s narrating performances on many occasions and am always struck anew by his talent –  and he only gets better. His portrayal of Julian – a man who has so many different and complex traits, is sublime, all of which traits completely steal the show – no pun intended. The books in this series all flow perfectly without any repetition in plot, the only common denominator being the ‘gang’ who have come to mean so much to us, and whose voices and characterisation are all perfectly replicated throughout each book by this extremely talented performer, without any deviation from the original.

MY VERDICT: Another amazing story in this memorable series and one I shall listen to over and over and never tire of. Highly recommended.


REVIEW RATING: STELLAR 5 STARS

NARRATION RATING: STELLAR 5 STARS

SENSUALITY RATING: WARM

 

Rockliffe series (click on the book covers for more details):

The Parfit Knight (Rockliffe, #1) by Stella Riley The Mésalliance by Stella Riley The Player by Stella Riley The Wicked Cousin (Rockcliffe, #4) by Stella Riley Hazard by Stella Riley Cadenza by Stella Riley

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Hazard audiobook

(Rockliffe, #5)

Genre: Historical Romance (Paris, 1770 and London, 1777)

Cover Blurb:

Hazard: a game of Chance and Luck, made riskier when Fate is rolling the dice.

For Aristide Delacroix, the first throw summons shades from his past. A man he had met, just once, over a card-table … and the lovely girl indirectly responsible for plunging his life into catastrophe.

For Lord Nicholas Wynstanton, tired of waiting for Madeleine Delacroix to make up her mind, it slyly suggests he begin a whole new game with loaded dice; while for Madeleine, it devises a terrifying lesson in missed opportunities and the uncertainty of second chances.

And for Genevieve Westin, hoping widowhood will be happier than marriage, it brings a rude awakening – leaving a single, wild gamble her only option.
A cardsharp turned businessman, a duke’s charming brother, a stubborn, razor-edged beauty and a desperate widow.

Four players in a game of Hazard … all playing for very high stakes.

♥♥♥♥♥♥

Stella Riley has kept my interest from the first page of the first book in her Rockliffe series (The Parfit Knight), which was originally written in her earlier life as a traditionally published author. Three years ago, she took up her pen again as an Indie author and I have not only discovered her (how did I miss her the first time around?) but now eagerly await each new release – three so far, and counting (plus of course, an addition to her superb English Civil War series). Both of her two earlier books are now available in e-format, as well as in paperback AND audio, and all the books in this series have been treated to stunning new covers. The Rockliffe series is rapidly becoming a reader’s favourite; a considerable success considering there are some thirty plus years between the first book and the last, and she has seamlessly continued the series as if that large gap never existed.

Hazard (book five), as the name suggests, is set in part against the backdrop of a gaming club. There are four players (as in the game); two equally spine-tingling romances playing out in parallel, and, as always, the enigmatic, all-seeing, all-knowing and utterly delicious, Duke of Rockliffe (aka Rock) is central to the story and its outcome. Each of Ms. Riley’s fabulous cast of characters introduced over the course of the series (some with books of their own), are in evidence, and as I always say, these men and women feel like old friends after five books.

Two of the main protagonists, brother and sister, Madeleine and Aristide Delacroix, get their HEA, and so too does Nicholas Wynstanton, Rock’s younger brother, who has long been smitten with the prickly Madeleine. By the time we reached the end of The Wicked Cousin, Nicholas was becoming more and more frustrated and Madeleine more difficult. However, fans of the series probably knew that Stella Riley would find a way for this unlikely pair to overcome their difficulties. Aristide’s love interest comes from a totally unexpected quarter and ties in nicely with his earlier life and his connection to Adrian Deveraux, Earl of Sarre (The

One of Stella Riley’s greatest strengths lies in her characterisation. The people she ‘creates’ take on a living, breathing persona and, in Hazard, Nicholas Wynstanton, who has been around as a secondary character since the first book, is fully developed into a larger than life, loveable and honourable man. No longer just the happy-go-lucky, younger brother of a duke, he is now a man not to be trifled with as he sets his sights on demolishing the walls Madeleine Delacroix has erected around her heart. Madeleine’s arguments against the match stem from her own insecurities – her earlier life in Paris where she had lived a hand-to-mouth existence with her brother and mother, and the unrequited, girlish infatuation she had briefly felt for her brother’s friend, Adrian Deveraux (The Player). Being the proud young woman, she is, Adrian’s rebuttal was all the more devastating and she has never fully recovered her composure or confidence with the opposite sex resulting in her unfortunate standoffishness.

Her brother, Aristide, is a cool and quiet man and, with a few well-chosen words the author conjures up a man I can see in my mind’s eye…

long blonde hair, eyes the blue of a cloudless winter sky and neatly tailored bones.

He says little but, through his inner musings, we get a great deal of insight into the man he is – suspicious, frustrated and angry – emotions he keeps carefully locked away. Aristide, on the face of it, seems to be calmly and emotionlessly going about his business, but he too has a bruised heart from which he has never fully recovered. His carefully locked away hurt at the way he believes he was treated by his ‘almost love’ comes back to haunt him. Seven years on he is no longer the tender-hearted, kindly young man working hard to care for his teenage sister and ailing mother, but an affluent, respected partner in one of London’s premier gaming/gentleman’s clubs. We see the cool, carefully cultivated aloofness slowly disintegrate before the onslaught of the attraction he discovers he still feels after the intervening years.

Stella Riley has the sibling relationship between Aristide and Madeline just right. Their character traits suggest a familial relationship; both are reserved as a result of brushes with young, unrequited love and both are over sensitive about their humble beginnings. As a result, they are both wary of allowing anyone to scale the walls of their self-erected defences. An intriguing pair and so the final capitulation to their respective loves is all the more satisfying.

Beautiful and sweet Genevieve has erupted back into Aristide’s well-ordered life after seven years. She has suffered much at the hands of her brothers and her now deceased, dissipated husband. She is aware that society views her with distaste by association and, as a result, she is extremely vulnerable and lacking in confidence and self-esteem. In fact, her very vulnerability and suffering is just what the calmly controlled Aristide needs as a salve to the perceived injustices he believes her responsible for in his past life. He is still the kind of man who needs to be needed, and Genevieve Westin certainly fits that bill and so we watch him crumble. It puts me in mind a little of The Mésalliance (although nothing quite compares to the final chapters of that magnificent story) in which we see Rock lose his legendary ‘cool’. I love these hard to read, mysterious men.

There is a plausible plot running throughout the story which involves most of the main characters but has its roots in Paris and Aristide’s earlier life. Rock always strolls in and takes centre stage at just the right moments – urbane and cool-as-cucumber, he steals every scene he is involved in. With just a few carefully selected words designed to defuse, he delivers a set-down, often without the recipient being aware he or she has been insulted. His character is one of Stella Riley’s triumphs, and this series is well named because Rock’s unfailing omniscience and his ability to always be in the right place at the right time is something I have come to look forward to with much anticipation in every book, and I’m never disappointed.

Hazard follows on within weeks of the end of The Wicked Cousin. Cassie and Sebastian are welcomed back into ‘the gang’ after their recent honeymoon and are evidently very-much-in-love newlyweds. They run the gauntlet of the banter and risqué comments of their close friends. Sebastian’s wicked and naughty sense of humour is very much in evidence, another area in which the author excels; her wit and humour are always lurking in the background, adding another dimension to her intriguing characters and expertly researched Georgian world. As we near the end of the series, it is going to be sad to say goodbye…but not yet. Ms. Riley is busy writing another/final book in the series and I am eagerly looking forward to a further intriguing addition to the Rockliffe series, and maybe Ms. Riley will tie off a few loose ends, such as, will Rock get his heir and let Nicholas off the hook?

I’ve read the book and now I’ve listened to the audio version performed by the talented actor Ms. Riley always employs to perform the books in this series (and two of her English Civil War/Restoration books). I’m always struck anew by Alex Wyndham’s versatility – it’s no easy job, after the many books he’s recorded for Ms. Riley and the large cast of characters he has had to keep track of. Yet, he does. Each person is easily identifiable and one excellent example is the Duke of Rockliffe whose smooth, rich voice is quite unique. When Rock appears in any scene he doesn’t need to be announced and Alex Wyndham has him to perfection using a voice and tone like warm treacle trickling down the spine – soft and loving – soft and menacing or simply in conversation with his peers – there’s no mistaking Rock for any other character. During one particular scene in which Madeleine is a guest of the Rockliffe ‘gang’, the ever, all knowing, all seeing Rock immediately recognises her vulnerability, as a result of her actions, and reacts in the most bone melting way. Reading the words had me sniffing but hearing them, well…have your tissues ready is my advice. As I previously remarked, much of Aristide’s thoughts and feelings are revealed to us through his inner musings. To the outside world, he is the proverbial ‘swan’, calm and unruffled, but paddling away furiously out of sight. Alex Wyndham is taxed with making this work and he does so spectacularly. I suspect that some readers may well have missed the ‘real’ Aristide in the written word – so my advice is to listen to this performer’s delectable French accent and fall in love with Stella Riley’s dreamy Aristide.

A new reader/listener to Stella Riley’s books may be a little overwhelmed by the number of characters in Hazard, but this is book five and therefore many have been introduced throughout the previous books. The writing, research and characterisation is, as always, superb and the book could be enjoyed as a stand-alone, but I recommend beginning with The Parfit Knight or, at the very least, it’s important to read/listen to The Wicked Cousin because Hazard follows on immediately from that book, although Cassie and Sebastian’s story is not left hanging.

MY VERDICT: Another stellar five stars read/listen for me. I might have my favourites in this series, but each book is as well written as the last and I can’t penalise the author for making me prefer one character or storyline over another, and besides which, I love them all.


REVIEW RATING: STELLAR 5 STARS

SENSUALITY RATING: SUBTLE


Rockliffe
 series so far (click on the book covers for more details):

The Parfit Knight (Rockliffe, #1) by Stella Riley The Mésalliance by Stella Riley The Player by Stella Riley The Wicked Cousin (Rockcliffe, #4) by Stella Riley Hazard by Stella Riley

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

REVIEW RATING: STELLAR 5 STARS

 

SENSUALITY RATING: SUBTLE

 

 

Rockcliffe series so far (click on the book cover for more details):

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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.

♥♥♥♥♥♥

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 Wicked Cousin - Audio

(Rockliffe, #4)

Genre: Historical Romance (Georgian)

Cover Blurb:

Sebastian Audley has spent years setting every city in Europe by the ears and keeping the scandal-sheets in profit. Word that he is finally returning to London becomes the hottest topic of the Season and casts numerous young ladies – many of whom have never seen him – into a fever of anticipation.

Cassandra Delahaye is not one of them. In her opinion, love affairs and duels, coupled with a reputation for never refusing even the most death-defying wager, suggest that Mr Audley is short of a brain cell or two. And while their first, very unorthodox meeting shows that perhaps he isn’t entirely stupid, it creates other reservations entirely.

Sebastian finds dodging admiring females and living down his reputation for reckless dare-devilry a full-time occupation. He had known that putting the past behind him in a society with an insatiable appetite for scandal and gossip would not be easy. But what he had not expected was to become the target of a former lover’s dangerous obsession … or to find himself falling victim to a pair of storm-cloud eyes.

♥♥♥♥♥♥

The Prologue to The Wicked Cousin, the fourth in Stella Riley’s magnificent Georgian Rockliffe series, is moving and poignant, and sets the scene for the string of events which will forever change Sebastian Audley’s life. As the story unfolds and we learn more about the life of this charismatic character, I fell for him hook, line and sinker.

On a scorching August day in 1757 when he was eight years old, Sebastian Audley’s life changed. And though he didn’t know it, that change was to last for the next thirteen years…

It was the day that a distraught child lost his beloved twin brother, the other half of himself; no one understood his grief. The boys had been inseparable – intuitively knowing each other’s thoughts in a way that only identical twins can. But, in Sebastian’s emotionally underdeveloped child’s mind, he believed he had failed Theo when he needed him the most. Locked in his room, he cried out his despair and felt his brother’s pain… and then…the silence…when he knew that part of him was gone forever and, from that moment on, Sebastian’s charmed, carefree life ended. He blamed himself for living when Theo had died, which was only reinforced by the diatribe hurled at him by his eldest sister, Blanche, who had irrationally never cared for the younger of her twin brothers. Theo’s early and tragic death shaped the way the adults in Sebastian’s life treated him, albeit believing they were keeping him safe. Their actions also impacted on the way he himself behaved for the best part of seven years, after finally escaping the strictures imposed on him by his grief-stricken father – actions that this autocratic man was to come to bitterly regret.

Sebastian’s first acts of defiance – refusing to be ‘chaperoned’ by the local vicar’s son, or to study the subject chosen for him by his father – came when he was finally allowed to leave home to study at Cambridge. Instead, he diligently and quietly applied himself to studying the law, which he saw as a way of eventually becoming independent of his father’s claustrophobic control. He obtained an honours degree but never actually had to practise law because an unexpected, small but adequate bequest from a great-aunt left him financially independent and, more importantly, it freed him from familial restraint. During his time at university, he worked hard, denying himself the fun and frolicking other undergraduates enjoyed. Instead, he discovered a love and quite remarkable talent for the intricacies of chess, which he had once enjoyed playing with his twin. This talent was to serve him well in later years.

As sole heir to his father, Viscount Wingham, Sebastian had to be kept safe for the succession at all costs but, by the time he reached his majority, he was determined to escape the suffocating over protectiveness of his family. After years of compliance, Sebastian about-faced and embarked on an extraordinary catch-up of everything that had previously been denied him; his exploits becoming the talk of London society before he disappeared to the continent to continue his outrageous lifestyle. All the girls he had never kissed or bedded became a part of his new life, and his adrenalin seeking exploits were salaciously reported in the gossip rags. Whatever challenge or wager the rumour mill insisted he had accepted – no matter how ridiculous, or even whether fact or fiction – was avidly reported and devoured by the ton. His notorious reputation, coupled with his lauded and extraordinary good looks, bluer than blue eyes, glorious hair of a rich burgundy/garnet and impressive physique, set him apart from his peers.  Sebastian Audley had become a living legend.

After seven years of self-imposed exile, wandering from place to place, and now desperate to escape the determined pursuit of a spurned lover turned stalker, Sebastian’s nomad life had become intolerable. During the last couple of years on the continent, he had already considerably toned down his behaviour and, with little else to do, his beloved chess became his only real enjoyment in life. Time and practice had honed his skills with remarkable results and, in fact, such a talent never did equate with his rakehell reputation, which was more a few years of madness than a character trait.

Though reluctant to return home to his father’s controlling orbit, he still felt a strong sense of familial duty. In all the years apart, he never stopped loving his father, and without fail made the long and arduous journey home once a year to see him. However, the cruel jibes of his sister, Blanche, whose unreasonable dislike of him has not abated with the years, were the catalyst that always drove him away again. Sebastian hides the hurt she causes him beneath a devil-may-care attitude which only serves to compound her dislike of him. One of the many things I love about Sebastian’s character is that he is an honourable young man who always knew that one day he would return to his responsibilities. However, who could blame him for staying away when his sister is the unmarried matriarch presiding over his ancestral home? Eventually, it is an imperious letter from Blanche informing him that his father has suffered an apoplexy that gives him the excuse he needs to return home for good.

Sebastian arrives home to find his father well on the road to recovery, and after spending some private time together, they finally make their peace; his father admitting to his earlier failures with regard to his son.  Sebastian is still not entirely convinced of his father’s ability to let him run his own life, but I began to warm to the viscount as his obvious pride in his son was rather touching. Whether in spite of or because of his reported escapades I’m not sure.

With his father out of danger and the decision all but made to remain in England, Sebastian decides to go to London in an attempt to convince society that he is a reformed character. There he seeks the help of Adrian Devereux, Earl of Sarre (The Player), the two men having met and become close friends whilst both were exiled on the continent. Adrian proposes a plan in the form of a private wager placed in the betting book of his gaming club. With this in place, Sebastian is protected, at least in the short term, from ridiculous wagers by immature young bucks. His first tentative steps are fraught with pitfalls, especially as he has recently gained the moniker of, The Wicked Cousin, courtesy of Olivia Delahaye, the rather silly younger sister of Cassandra (Cassie), whom we met in previous books as a secondary character. Cassie’s father, a close friend of the Duke of Rockliffe, plays quite a prominent part in this story and I liked his quiet, reasonable character and wise council, especially regarding Sebastian. The familial relationship between the Delahaye’s and Audley’s is tentative but nevertheless one in which Olivia is more than happy to bask in among her bevy of young female friends.

Sebastian’s initial, accidental meeting with Cassie is brimming with misunderstandings and only serves to reinforce her pre-conceived opinion of him as an arrogant, feckless, philanderer whom she could never like. However, after several more encounters, Cassie reluctantly begins to see why he is so popular with and intriguing to the men and women of society; he is witty and amusing but in a kindly, non-mocking way, with no apparent artifice and more importantly, he seems genuinely interested in her as a person. Then, with some simple, sweet gestures, Sebastian has Cassie hooked along with the rest of society and by now she is already half-way in love with him. In Cassie’s experience, she has only ever attracted dull dogs and then only because their mothers think her suitable daughter-in-law material. Never in her wildest dreams does she imagine that her feelings could be returned by this gorgeous young man who could, quite frankly, have his pick.

But they are returned because Sebastian is utterly smitten. He sees – through the eyes of a man in love – the beautiful, captivating and interesting girl that other less discerning suitors have failed to see. From the moment the two acknowledge that they are meant to be together, Cassie is loyal to a fault, refusing to believe anything to Sebastian’s detriment and, when his spurned ex-lover tries to make trouble for him, she fights tooth and nail for him regardless of the opinion of others. Charles and Serena Delahaye are nonplussed by the change in their previously gentle, biddable daughter and, in the words of her father:

“You, Mr. Audley, have turned my lovely girl into a damned Valkyrie.'”

Cassie’s parents have always appreciated her worth, never pressuring her into settling for second best. So, when Sebastian requests permission of her father to pay his addresses to Cassie – with her approval – the astute Charles Delahaye is more than happy, especially as his daughter has never sent a young man to him before. Despite Sebastian’s reputation, Sir Charles has always known there were valid reasons for his past behaviour and has some sympathy for the young man.

The Wicked Cousin is very much a beautifully crafted love story, with interesting and likeable characters. I particularly like the author’s unique way of taking apparently ordinary women and showing us that we all have hidden depths and just need the right man to see them as Sebastian does with Cassie. I adored both of these characters; Cassie is sweet, determined and loyal and Sebastian, kind, protective and with a generosity of spirit one cannot help but be drawn to.  His outward carefree attitude hides a depth of grief for his twin that Cassie sees and understands. I thought Stella Riley rather clever in her pairing of these two – so different and yet so right for each other. Sebastian’s rather naughty sense of humour and Cassie’s whole-hearted acceptance of it is amusing and a little risqué, but not too much, because, true to her style, Ms. Riley allows us just enough to wet our appetite and no more.

The unforgettable Duke of Rockliffe (The Mésalliance) again leads the group of friends that Stella Riley has cultivated and grown since the beginning of the series. They are once more in action as they close ranks to protect one of their own. Amusingly, at one point in the story, ‘the friends’ take the normally calm and collected Rock away to entertain him at the request of their wives to give his wife, Adeline, some respite from his fussing as she awaits the arrival of their first child. When, at last the child arrives, my heart just melted. Imagine the perfectly controlled, formidable Rock as a doting papa; Stella Riley is one of only a few authors who can reduce me to mush, and she always succeeds in one way or another:

…his Grace was walking back and forth by the windows holding a small bundle wrapped in a lacy white shawl…

I was very happy to see the return of Adrian Deveraux, one of my favourite characters in this series. His story is told in The Player, which is one of the best and most intriguingly complex stories I have read in Historical Romance, the genius of which is captured to perfection by Alex Wyndham in his splendid audio performance of the various personas and voices of Adrian. I loved seeing more of Adrian and how his marriage to Caroline, his countess, has progressed, but also how he plays such a pivotal role in helping Sebastian and Cassandra attain their own HEA.

As always, the recording of one of Ms. Riley’s books into audio by her chosen narrator, Alex Wyndham, is a treat worth waiting for. Mr. Wyndham has a unique talent whereby he transforms anything this author writes from wonderful to extraordinary. Actor and author are completely in tune as he interprets her words with perfect precision, sometimes bringing something to my notice I had missed in the reading of it.

Every character is easily distinguishable – male or female, old or young. The male cast of friends has become larger and more complex as the series has progressed, yet this appears to pose no dilemma for Mr. Wyndham, as yet again he manages to pull another voice out of his ever-deepening hat. For instance, this is the first we have heard of Sebastian in the series; his ‘voice’ is perfectly pitched to indicate the light, buoyant, slightly amused and occasionally naughty tones of Sebastian, which I imagined when I first read his story. There are a few occasions where Adrian and Sebastian are in conversation and I wondered how Alex Wyndham would deal with these two equally charismatic characters to my satisfaction. How could I question his ability because he flawlessly delineates between the two men, with never a doubt as to which one is speaking, and, all the time, still retaining the exact voice he used for Adrian in The Player.

I can’t complete my analysis of Mr. Wyndham’s performance without mentioning his superior portrayal of Nicholas Wynstanton, younger brother of the Duke of Roxton. In previous books, this young man has been easy-going and ebullient but now, smitten by a young woman who is resisting his advances, he has become grumpy and short-tempered, whilst still remaining very recognisable as himself. Another thoroughly enjoyable and faultless performance from this supremely talented actor.

This series is really addictive and I’m particularly fond of a saga where we see the return of family and friends in high-profile. These people have become so special to us as readers that we feel invested in their lives. Ms. Riley has done this to such great effect that these men and now their women too, feel like old friends.

Ms. Riley infuses the story with her customary wit and humour and I was particularly entertained by the scene where Sebastian ties up his ex-mistress and cuts off her hair (this scene is captured admirably by Mr. Wyndham, who sounded as though he was enjoying himself immensely).

As is the case with any Stella Riley novel, her research is so impeccable that we can be sure she has it right, whether it is the intricacies of chess or the cut and thrust of a tense and exciting fencing match. I highly recommend Stella Riley’s work to the uninitiated because, in my opinion, she is consistently a 5 star writer and each of her stories is special in its own right. I would recommend starting at the beginning of this series, mainly to gain a perspective and understanding of how Ms. Riley has developed her intriguing group of friends and relatives, and to see how their loves and lives intertwine, but more importantly how they all support one another. However, it isn’t necessary, as each story is unique and different to the previous books in the series.

MY VERDICT: The audio of THE WICKED COUSIN, narrated by Alex Wyndham, is a terrific listen and another worthy addition to the author’s fabulous Rockliffe series. Stella Riley never disappoints, and I always look forward with eager anticipation to a new release and with HAZARD, the next in the series, nearing completion, we won’t have long to wait.

 

REVIEW RATING: STELLAR 5 STARS
 NARRATION REVIEW RATING: STELLAR 5 STARS

 SENSUALITY RATING: SUBTLE/WARM

 

Rockliffe series so far (click on the book covers for more details):

The Parfit Knight Volume 1 (Rockcliffe) by Stella Riley The Mésalliance by Stella Riley The Player (Rockliffe, #3) by Stella Riley The Wicked Cousin (Rockliffe) (Volume 4) by Stella Riley

 

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