The Visitant by Megan Chance (audiobook) – Narrated by Julia Whelan

the visitant

After she nearly ruins her family with a terrible misstep, Elena Spira is sent to Venice to escape disgrace and to atone by caring for the ailing Samuel Farber. But the crumbling and decaying Ca’ Basilio palazzo, where Samuel is ensconced, holds tragic secrets, and little does Elena know how profoundly they will impact her. Soon she begins to sense that she is being watched by something. And when Samuel begins to have hallucinations that make him violent and unpredictable, she can’t deny she’s in mortal danger.

Then impoverished nobleman Nero Basilio, Samuel’s closest friend and the owner of the palazzo, arrives. Elena finds herself entangled with both men in a world where the past seeps into the present and nothing is as it seems. As Elena struggles to discover the haunting truth before it destroys her, a dark force seems to hold Samuel and the Basilio in thrall – is it madness, or something more sinister?

This title may be purchased from Audible via Amazon

Rating: A- for narration; B for content

Megan Chance is someone I’ve been aware of for a while as an author of historical gothic mysteries with a touch of the supernatural about them, but I’ve not so far read or listened to one of her books. I have now rectified that situation with The Visitant, which I enjoyed well enough to want to delve into her back catalogue and keep an eye out for future books.

The novel’s subtitle says it all, really – A Venetian Ghost Story is a very apt description! But even with that massive hint as to what to expect, I was nonetheless gripped by the story, which is well-written and darkly atmospheric with an increasingly pervasive sense of menace; and which is peopled by an intriguing and strongly drawn set of characters.

You can read the rest of this review at AudioGals.

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Dair Devil (Roxton Family Saga #4) by Lucinda Brant (audiobook) – Narrated by Alex Wyndham

Dair Devil audio

Opposites attract. Appearances can deceive. A dashing and rugged façade hides the vulnerable man within. He will gamble with his life, but never his heart. Always the observer, never the observed, her fragility hides conviction. She will risk everything for love. One fateful night they collide. The attraction is immediate, the consequences profound….

London and Hampshire, 1777: The story of Alisdair “Dair” Fitzstuart, nobleman, ex-soldier, and rogue, and Aurora “Rory” Talbot, spinster, pineapple fancier, and granddaughter of England’s Spymaster General, and how they fall in love.

This title may be purchased from Audible via Amazon

Rating: A+ for narration; A- for content

This fourth book in Lucinda Brant’s Roxton Family Saga, is a lovely, beautifully romantic story about a man who hides his true self behind a wild, brash exterior, whose life is transformed by a young woman who had thought only to observe life from the sidelines.

Big, strong and handsome, Major Lord Alisdair (Dair) Fitzstuart more than lives up to his nickname. He is a military hero, having displayed enormous courage in battle and emerged unscathed; but has the reputation of being a complete rapscallion, renowned for his wild, often outrageous behaviour, and for the fact he never turns down a bet, no matter how ridiculous or dangerous the challenge. His antics keep society well entertained, but what most people fail to realise is that he’s bored. Returned six months previously from the war in the Colonies, where, unbeknownst to many, he worked as a spy as well as an army officer, he is at a loose end. Heir to the Earl of Strathsay, he has been left in limbo by his father, who left England twenty years ago without leaving his son any authority over his English estates. Until he marries, Dair has no independent means and can have no hand in the management of the estates that will one day be his.

The book opens with Dair and two of his best friends about to invade the studio of artist, George Romney in order to play an audacious prank. With Dair and Lord Grasby stripped down to loincloths and daubed with ashes and paint in order to look like American Indians, the plan is to cause mayhem by frightening the bevy of lovely opera dancers currently serving as models for Romney’s next painting. Cedric Pleasant is infatuated with the beautiful Consulata Baccelli, so Dair’s plan is that his friend will intervene at an opportune moment, scare off the two savages, save the day and thus win the lady’s admiration and, hopefully, gratitude (*wink*). Unfortunately, however, their “invasion” coincides with the unplanned visit to the studio of Lady Grasby and her party, which also includes Grasby’s sister, Lady Aurora (Rory) Talbot. In the ensuing fracas, Dair and Rory end up – literally – tangled together; and even though they have met before at social events (he is cousin to Antonia, dowager Duchess of Roxton who is Rory’s godmother) he hasn’t really taken much notice of her and doesn’t realise who she is to start with. All he knows is that he is in possession of a very pretty, funny, quick witted, perceptive and warm armful of woman and he wants her.

It’s not until the next day that Dair discovers the identity of that warm armful, but before he can speak to Rory about the events of the previous evening, her grandfather, the Earl of Shrewsbury, has made him swear to act as though he remembers nothing about it so as to spare Rory’s delicate sensibilities.

Shrewsbury is England’s spymaster and a very powerful man, but he dotes on Rory, who because of a birth defect (a club foot), walks with a cane. At twenty-two, she doesn’t expect ever to marry, much as she would like to, because of her disability and also because her grandfather is so over-protective that he doesn’t afford her many chances to meet eligible gentlemen.

The bulk of the story deals with the progression of Dair and Rory’s relationship, which is deliciously romantic and extremely well-developed. We are also treated to further – and unexpected – developments in the lives of Antonia and her new husband, and the continuation of the sub-plot that began in Autumn Duchess, concerning the involvement of Dair’s brother with the American revolutionaries. All these elements are woven together skilfully and seamlessly; and while at one point early on, it seemed as though there was the potential for the introduction of an angsty Big Misunderstanding, I was relieved that Ms Brant opted not to go there. Thankfully, she’s a good enough writer that she doesn’t need to employ such devices to create conflict or tension, which instead arise naturally from the characters or from the way she has designed her story.

Both principals are likeable and strongly drawn. Dair is a rogue, but he’s an honourable one, a man with a huge capacity for love and understanding, as is shown in his interactions with his ten-year-old son, the product of his first, youthful liaison with a serving maid. I know that some listeners might be put off by the fact of the hero’s having a child, but the fact that he acknowledges the boy and continues to be a part of his life says a lot about him, and I liked him all the more for it. Rory is witty and intelligent, determined to live her life to the full in spite of her disability, and it’s easy to understand why Dair is so immediately smitten with her. He doesn’t care about her club foot or that she walks with a cane – he sees a lovely, loveable young woman and is determined to make her his.

I have listened to a number of Alex Wyndham’s narrations now and he is, quite simply, one of the best narrators around. Every time I come to write a review of one of his performances, I find myself opening up the thesaurus to find more superlatives, because he is so incredibly good that I have run out of them! Every single character is clearly delineated so that there is never any question as to who is speaking in any given scene, and his female voices are the best I have ever heard from any male narrator in the genre. I continue to adore his interpretation of Antonia, (now the Duchess of Kinross), and his portrayal of Dair is utterly perfect; determined, playful, authoritative and sexy by turns, Mr Wyndham gives so much more than a mere “performance”. It probably helps that he has a gorgeous voice to lend to the delectable heroes Ms Brant has created for us, but add to that his perfect pacing, his incredible range of timbre and accent and his ability to get to the emotional heart of both story and characters and you have the perfect performance.

I can’t recommend the audiobook of Dair Devil highly enough. The love story is compelling, the historical setting is used to great effect and the narration is flawless. It really doesn’t get any better than this.

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Only a Kiss (Survivor’s Club #6) by Mary Balogh (audiobook) – Narrated by Rosalyn Landor

only a kiss audio

The Survivors’ Club: Six men and one woman, injured in the Napoleonic Wars, their friendships forged in steel and loyalty. But for one, her trials are not over…. Since witnessing the death of her husband during the wars, Imogen, Lady Barclay, has secluded herself in the confines of Hardford Hall, their home in Cornwall. The new owner has failed to take up his inheritance, and Imogen desperately hopes he will never come to disturb her fragile peace.

Percival Hayes, Earl of Hardford, has no interest in the wilds of Cornwall, but when he impulsively decides to pay a visit to his estate there, he is shocked to discover that it is not the ruined heap he had expected. He is equally shocked to find the beautiful widow of his predecessor’s son living there. Soon Imogen awakens in Percy a passion he has never thought himself capable of feeling. But can he save her from her misery and reawaken her soul? And what will it mean for him if he succeeds?

This title is available for download from Audible

Rating: A for narration; A- for content

I’ve enjoyed every one of the novels I’ve read and/or listened to in Ms Balogh’s Survivor’s Club series, and Only a Kiss, the sixth book, is no exception. The author continues her extraordinarily insightful stories about a group of people – six men and one woman – indelibly scarred by their wartime experiences with the story of Imogen, Lady Barclay who, eight years previously, watched her officer husband die at the hands of his French captors.

You can read the rest of this review at AudioGals.

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The Wrong Bride (Highland Weddings #1) by Gayle Callen

the wrong bride

Shaken from sleep during the night and bundled off to the Highlands by a burly Scot, Riona is at first terrified, then livid. Hugh McCallum insists they were promised to each other as children to ensure peace between their clans. The stubborn laird refuses to believe he’s kidnapped the wrong Catriona Duff. Instead, he embarks on a campaign of slow-burning seduction.

At first, Hugh cares only what their marriage can do for his people. Now he’s starting to crave Riona for her own sake, but her true identity jeopardizes his clan’s contract. And unless she chooses to risk all to be his bride, he’ll lose the only thing he prizes more than the lands he’s fought so hard to save—the passionate marriage they could have together.

This title may be purchased from Amazon

Rating: B-

The Wrong Bride, the first in a new series from Gayle Callen, is one of those books that’s hard to grade. It’s well-written, the author allows time for her romance to develop and there’s a nicely sensual undercurrent to many of the interactions between the central couple; but it’s the sort of book I had no problem putting down when I had to, rather than one that compelled me to keep reading and ignore everything else around me while I did.

We jump right into the story on the opening page, as Catriona (Riona) Duff is rudely awakened in the middle of the night by a hand over her mouth and an intruder in her bedroom telling her that she’s his betrothed and must go with him. She quickly realises that struggling will be to no avail and tries to talk the man out of his intent, insisting that she’s nobody’s intended bride – but he will have none of it. Once they are underway, the man introduces himself as Hugh McCallum, chief of Clan McCallum and informs her that her father, the Earl of Aberfoyle, had betrothed her to him when she was just a baby, as a way of putting an end to the enmity between their clans, and that her dowry is payment for the shared land rights which were agreed at the time of their betrothal. But when Hugh had called on the earl in London, the man had tried to renege on the deal, leaving Hugh little alternative but to resort to desperate measures.

Riona is stunned, and tells Hugh that she is not the earl’s daughter but his niece, and that his betrothed is her cousin, whose name is also Catriona Duff – but of course, he doesn’t believe her, thinking her just as duplicitous as Aberfoyle.

The journey from London to the Highlands is long and arduous, and even though Riona is constantly on the look-out for a means to escape, she eventually realises it’s not going to happen, contenting herself instead by throwing sharp-tongued remarks at Hugh whenever she can. Once arrived at Larig Castle, however, Riona begins to see a different side to her abductor. His reception by the clan after an absence of ten years is not an especially cordial one, and there are many among the men who appear to distrust him. At first Riona sees this as an opportunity – if she can win one of the powerful clansmen to her side, then perhaps he will help her to escape. But the longer she resides at Larig, the more she comes to realise just what the revelation of her true identity will mean for Hugh and for his clan; no peace with the Clan Duff, no influx of cash from her dowry… and Hugh will be blamed for the resulting hardship.

The love-story unfolds at a leisurely pace, but that makes sense considering the fact that Hugh and Riona’s relationship gets off to such a terrible start. It’s not surprising that Riona resents Hugh and insists on insulting and needling him whenever she can, and one of the best things about the book is the way in which the author slowly reveals the truth about him. The romance is sweetly sensual, and there is a real sense of Riona’s slowly falling in love at the same time as she is coming to know Hugh for the caring, honourable man he is. He cares deeply for his clan and his family, and will do whatever it takes to keep them safe and happy, even if it means appearing in a less than favourable light himself.

The early eighteenth century setting allows the author to explore some of the political and social issues of the time; the continuing support for “the King over the Water”; the disrespect shown to Scottish MPs in parliament (of which Hugh was one); the problems Hugh encounters in persuading his tenants to adopt more modern farming methods – and I always appreciate that in an historical romance. It doesn’t have to be a history lesson; I just like to feel that the word “historical” is justified.

Ms Callen is also able to make use of a number of traditions that surround marriage in Scotland, one of which is that of “bundling” – whereby a betrothed couple could sleep in the same bed and spend time talking and getting to know each other, but they remained clothed and the woman’s legs would be tied together so as to prevent them having intercourse. Hugh has to spend so much of his days working hard, training with his men and looking over his lands that the only time he can spend with Riona is at night – and as he has promised not to take her before she consents to the marriage, he avails himself of this particular custom. That doesn’t prevent them doing a bit more than just talking, however, showing Riona how close she is to succumbing to Hugh’s gentle seduction.

While I don’t normally like stories built on misunderstandings, the premise does work, and the author has set up Hugh’s initial distrust of Riona so that his refusals to believe her protestations that she’s not his betrothed are plausible. The central characters are likeable and well-drawn, although Riona’s insistence on sniping at Hugh goes on for a little too long, and the revelation that leads to Hugh’s being finally accepted by all is a little too pat for my taste. The resolution to the problem created by the fact that Hugh has fallen for the wrong woman is also a little too easily come by, and the ending does feel somewhat rushed. Overall, though,The Wrong Bride is a solid and enjoyable read, and I certainly appreciated the use of an historical setting that’s slightly different to the norm.

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Tempted by a Rogue by Lauren Smith (audiobook) – narrated by Carolyn Morris

Tempted by a rogue

The rogue’s temptation would be her undoing….

Gemma Haverford knows exactly who she will marry: James Randolph, the man she’s had a secret understanding with for the last 11 years. With every letter written between them while he’s been off at sea, their love has grown. Now they will be reunited with his return to England.

There’s just one problem. The man whose words she’d fallen in love with isn’t James at all….

Jasper Holland, a gentleman rogue of the first order, is trapped. Talked into a scheme by his best friend, he pretended to be James for 11 years as he wrote to Gemma, even though he’d promised James he’d break it off. But now with his return to England, his secret will come out – and he’ll lose the one woman he can’t live without.

What began as a game of words, now becomes a game of hearts, and Jasper will pay any price to call Gemma his.

This title is available to download from Audible via Amazon

Rating: B for narration; D for content

Lauren Smith’s novella,Tempted by a Rogue has exactly two things going for it. First – it is narrated by the excellent Carolyn Morris, whose name has been woefully absent among the lists of new audiobook historical romances over the past year or so; and second – it’s short. Mind you, at around three hours and fifteen minutes, it’s not short enough, because by the half way mark the inconsistencies in the storytelling and characterisation had become so annoying that I struggled to finish it.

You can read the rest of this review at AudioGals.

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The Captain’s Christmas Bride by Annie Burrows

the captain's christmas bride

Wrong man

Lady Julia Whitney is at her wit’s end. Her perfect beau just won’t propose! But she’s struck upon a plan to ensure her marriage by Christmas. Between masquerades and mistletoe, she finds herself fully compromised by the wrong man!

Right husband?

Captain Dunbar cannot believe he’s fallen for this chit’s game! Now he must marry society miss Lady Julia with nothing to connect them other than incredible passion. But he’s about to discover that the best Christmas presents come in surprising, and delightful, packages!

This title may be purchased from Amazon

Rating: B

I freely admit that I can’t walk past a compromised-into-marriage story without giving it at least a second and third look. The Captain’s Christmas Bride sucked me in straight away with the immediate clash of personalities between the two protagonists; the spoilt princess used to getting her own way, and the blunt-spoken, somewhat forbidding ex-naval man who is utterly furious at having been duped by a mere chit of a girl – and one he doesn’t even like very much at that.

The thing that lifts what could have been a fairly run-of-the-mill story into the above average bracket is the way in which Annie Burrows gradually reveals the heroine not to be at all what she seems to be, and shows both principals coming to a greater understanding of each other through their interactions with one another and with those around them.

Now aged twenty, Lady Julia Whitney, daughter of the Earl of Mountnessing, is the apple of her father’s eye. She has been his hostess since the death of her mother (his second wife) and he has indulged her in almost everything – except when it comes to her choice of a husband. Julia wants to marry David, a young man she has known for several years and who is studying to be a doctor, but her father won’t hear of it. David is below her in station and the earl believes he is a fortune hunter. Desperate to get her own way on this, Julia concocts a plan with the help of a couple of friends; disguised in a rather daring gown and wearing a mask, she will entice David away from that evening’s masquerade ball and take him somewhere quiet and dark where they will be discovered (by her friends) engaged in some illicit kisses. Once she is compromised, her father will have no alternative but to allow the match.

Everything goes according to plan. David follows Julia to the deserted and very dark orangery and kisses her with the sort of passionate fervour that makes her head spin and her knees buckle. Before long, he’s under her skirts and she’s on her back, an enthusiastic partner in her own ruin. Julia hadn’t intended things to go quite so far, but as they will have to get married now, she is not too concerned. Until, that is, she and her lover are discovered by her friends … and David, who is quite clearly appalled.

Julia is horrified when she discovers that the man she had believed to be David is, in fact, Captain Lord Alec Dunbar, the handsome but rather stern naval hero who arrived uninvited a couple of days earlier in search of his sister, who is another of the earl’s guests. Dunbar is furious – both at himself and with Julia – believing it to have been her intention to trap him into marriage all along. Nevertheless, he is too much the gentleman to blacken the name of a lady, regardless of her actions, and makes it clear that he intends to do the right thing.

When the couple confronts Julia’s father and make him aware of what has happened, Alec refuses to allow Julia to take the blame, insisting instead that they are very taken with each other and got carried away. Given the strength of his appalled reaction to her, Julia is surprised at Alec’s words, yet later, finds herself standing up for him when the earl all but accuses him of being a fortune hunter. In a way, this sets the tone for their relationship in the early stages, with each of them being alternately surprised by a kindness on the part of the other, only to be infuriated by a careless action or comment shortly afterwards.

One of the things that works best about the story is the way in which Julia is slowly revealed not to be at all the sort of pampered brat she at first appears. As we – and Alec – come to know her better, she is shown to be a good-hearted and dependable young woman who puts others before herself, often under trying circumstances. Her family is dysfunctional, to say the least – her older brothers are unhappily married and not discreet about their various extra-marital affairs, her father loves her, but is constantly judging her against her mother’s memory, her aunts are somewhat eccentric and all of them have, for years, been so wrapped up in their own battles, that none of them has had much time or affection to spare for Julia. To make matters worse, she discovers that the woman she had regarded as her best friend has betrayed her and had never been a true friend. Yet through it all, Julia continues to serve as hostess, making sure the house runs like clockwork and that everyone is comfortable, all while trying to adjust to marriage to a man she hardly knows and who, at times, seems to dislike her intensely.

Alec is a handsome, commanding hero, but he’s also quick to judge and isn’t exactly tactful when it comes to his new wife. Believing she deliberately entrapped him makes him prone to think the worst of her at times; but at others, he is able to look beyond the poised, cool exterior she affects to see the vulnerable, insecure woman underneath. Both characters have to come to see themselves and those around them differently, and it’s this aspect of the story I enjoyed the most; watching Alec and Julia come to a greater understanding of themselves and each other in spite of the somewhat inauspicious beginning to their relationship.

The ending is a little drawn-out and somewhat silly, but it does have some interesting insights to offer on Julia’s character and provides Alec with the chance to undertake a very public grovelling session.

Those few criticisms aside, I really enjoyed The Captain’s Christmas Bride. Alec and Julia are engaging, imperfect characters whose explosive chemistry in the bedroom is another of the book’s plus points. Ms Burrows writes with a great deal of flair and emotional insight, and while the book is a quick read, it’s a satisfying one.

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Highlander Undone by Connie Brockway (audiobook) – Narrated by Napoleon Ryan

Highlander Undone

To win her trust, he must betray his heart.

While recovering at his uncle’s estate from wounds sustained in the Sudan, Jack Cameron – a loyal Scottish captain in the British army – is haunted by the words of a dying officer: one of her majesty’s Black Dragoons is aiding the slavers they were sent to suppress. But how will he uncover the traitor without sending the culprit to ground? He finds a way while listening to the voices beneath his open window – particularly those of Addie Hoodless, a beautiful widow, and her brother, Ted, a famed artist commissioned to paint portraits of the Black Dragoons’ senior officers.

Posing as an artist, Jack decides to infiltrate the close circle of friends at Ted’s studio to listen in on the unguarded conversations of the officers. But first, he must win Addie’s trust despite the emotional wounds of her past. Will Jack dupe the only woman he has ever loved or stand down from hunting the traitor? If his real identity is exposed, Addie’s life will be in terrible danger.

This title is available to purchase from Audible via Amazon

Rating: B+ for narration; B for content

Connie Brockway’s latest novel Highlander Undone is a well-written story which features a mystery running alongside a tender and well-written central romance. I enjoyed reading the book, and chose the audiobook for review because it afforded me the chance to listen to Napoleon Ryan, a narrator whose name I’ve seen cropping up more and more frequently as a narrator of historical romance but haven’t yet heard.

Seriously wounded while on active service in the Sudan, Captain John (Jack) Cameron of the Gordon Highlanders is sent back to England to recover from his injuries, entrusted to the care of his only living relative, his great-uncle Lord Merritt. Jack spends a number of months confined to the dower house on his uncle’s estate, and because he is bedridden, becomes inadvertently privy to a number of conversations that take place on the terrace below his open window.

You can read the rest of this review at AudioGals.

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