Last Christmas in Paris: A Novel of World War 1 by Hazel Gaynor and Heather Webb (Audiobook) – Narrated by Alex Wyndham, Billie Fulford-Brown, Morag Sims, Gary Furlong, Derek Perkins, Greg Wagland, Antony Ferguson, Jane Copland and Mary Jane Wells

This title may be downloaded from Audible via Amazon

August 1914. England is at war. As Evie Elliott watches her brother, Will, and his best friend, Thomas Harding, depart for the front, she believes – as everyone does – that it will be over by Christmas, when the trio plan to celebrate the holiday among the romantic cafés of Paris.

But as history tells us, it all happened so differently….

Evie and Thomas experience a very different war. Frustrated by life as a privileged young lady, Evie longs to play a greater part in the conflict – but how? – and as Thomas struggles with the unimaginable realities of war, he also faces personal battles back home, where War Office regulations on press reporting cause trouble at his father’s newspaper business. Through their letters Evie and Thomas share their greatest hopes and fears – and grow ever fonder from afar. Can love flourish amid the horror of the First World War, or will fate intervene?

Christmas 1968. With failing health, Thomas returns to Paris – a cherished packet of letters in hand – determined to lay to rest the ghosts of his past. But one final letter is waiting for him…

Rating: Narration – A+ : Content – B+

Last Christmas in Paris is a beautifully written, superbly narrated epistolary novel which centres around the correspondence exchanged between three friends during the years of the First World War. I suspect the degree to which any listener will enjoy the story will depend on whether one enjoys novels that consist entirely of letters; personally, I’m a big fan of that literary device, so that, added to the fact that I have a particular interest in the history of the period, plus the list of excellent narrators attached to the project pretty much ensured my enjoyment of this audiobook. And enjoy it I did, although ‘enjoy’ seems rather a feeble word to describe how I feel about it now that I’ve finished listening to it. I was so caught up in this story of friendship, emancipation, love, loss, tragedy, hope, despair… a real gamut of emotions, that I couldn’t bear to set it aside; I listened to it in only two or three sittings and, when I finished it, felt that strange sense of emptiness that always seems to descend when I’ve finished reading or listening to something really good – that feeling of “what do I do now?”

You can read the rest of this review at AudioGals.

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Nightfall by Anne Stuart (audiobook) – Narrated by Evan Harris


This title may be downloaded from Audible via Amazon

This is my fate…to die for unspeakable crimes. All I ask is that a stranger give herself to me and to my secrets.

Richard Tiernan has been sentenced to death. With an ulterior motive and a heart full of dark truths, he agrees to tell all to an ailing writer whose greed and ambition are so strong that he will even give his own daughter to Richard in return for one last Pulitzer-winning story.

I want Cassidy Roarke. I need her. But she has to prove she’s worthy. That she can be trusted.

Cassidy’s spent her life struggling to earn her father’s respect and love. Now his health is failing, and her feelings for him are even more complex. Loyalty is a sacrifice. Daughters can be broken by their fathers. She has to help when he calls. He’s bailed Richard Tiernan out of prison just long enough to coax the shocking facts out of him. What happened that night? What did Tiernan really do to his family?

Her father will sell his soul to the Devil before he dies. So be it.

Richard Tiernan may take them both to Hell.

Rating: Narration – B- : Content – B

Nightfall is one of those books I’ve meant to get around to reading for ages. As is often the case, I haven’t been able to manage it, so when the audiobook appeared, I jumped on it straight away. Originally published in 1995, it’s a standalone romantic thriller that goes to some pretty dark and disturbing places; Ms. Stuart is known for writing bad-boy heroes who generally occupy shaky moral ground and walk a thin line between being an alpha hero and an alpha-hole, and in this book especially, that line is very, very blurred. I happen to be a fan of Ms. Stuart’s particular brand of tough, ruthless gamma heroes, because she usually manages to keep them on just the right side of that line, but I can accept they’re not for everyone.

Richard Tiernan has been convicted of murdering his wife and is suspected of killing another women and also his two young children, who have vanished. He is awaiting sentencing and has been bailed temporarily by Sean O’ Rourke, a famous author who is, it is assumed, is going to write Richard’s story, detailing his crimes and offering insight into the mind of a man guilty of such heinous acts. If the book nets Sean a Pulitzer, too, he’s not going to complain.

You can read the rest of this review at AudioGals.

Count the Shells (Porthkennack #6) by Charlie Cochrane


This title may be purchased from Amazon

Michael Gray returned from World War One injured, but at least he returned. Others were not so fortunate, including his first and greatest love, Thomas Carter-Clemence, with whom Michael had parted bitterly before the conflict began.

Broch, the Carter-Clemence home in Porthkennack, was an integral part of pre-war holidays for the Grays, the two families drawn together in the wake of their sons’ friendship. Returning to the once-beloved Cornish coast for a break with his sister and her family, Michael has to find the courage to face old memories . . . and dare new relationships.

When Thomas’s brother Harry makes an unexpected appearance, Michael is surprised to find himself deeply attracted to Harry for his own sake. But as their relationship heats up, it unearths startling revelations and bitter truths. Michael must decide whether Harry is the answer to his prayers or the last straw to break an old soldier’s back.

 

Rating: B-

 

Count the Shells, by new-to-me author, Charlie Cochrane, is the sixth entry in Riptide Publishing’s Porthkennack series of standalone romances that are linked by virtue being set in and around the fictional Cornish town of the same name.  The series boasts a mixture of contemporary and historical stories, and this is the second historical (the first was Joanna Chambers’ excellent A Gathering Storm), set – I’m guessing, because it’s not actually made clear what the year is – not long after the end of World War One.

Count the Shells is a gently moving, reflective story which opens as a young man – Michael Gray – ponders love and loss as he reminisces about his past lovers, some of whom fought in the war and unlike him, did not come home.  Playing on the beach with his young nephew, Michael counts aloud in several different languages as he places shells on the sand, one for each of his five lovers, while thinking about those very different men and the nature of his feelings for them.

Number one – un, uno, eins – on Michael’s list is, and will always be Thomas Carter-Clemence, his oldest friend, the love of his life… and the man from whom he’d parted following a bitter row in the Spring of 1909. Thomas had joined the army not long after that, and had then been killed in the early days of the war; he and Michael had never reconciled but Michael still feels the pain of their parting and his loss and never expects to love so deeply and completely again.

You can read the rest of this review at All About Romance.

A Strange Scottish Shore (Emmeline Truelove #2) by Juliana Gray (audiobook) – narrated by Gemma Massot

This title may be downloaded from Audible via Amazon

Scotland, 1906. A mysterious object discovered inside an ancient castle calls Maximilian Haywood, the new Duke of Olympia, and his fellow researcher Emmeline Truelove north to the remote Orkney Islands. No stranger to the study of anachronisms in archeological digs, Haywood is nevertheless puzzled by the artifact: a suit of clothing that, according to family legend, once belonged to a selkie who rose from the sea and married the castle’s first laird.

But Haywood and Truelove soon realize they’re not the only ones interested in the selkie’s strange hide. When their mutual friend Lord Silverton vanishes in the night from an Edinburgh street, their quest takes a dangerous turn through time, which puts Haywood’s extraordinary talents – and Truelove’s courage – to their most breathtaking test yet.

Rating: Narration – C- Content – A-


Why do audio publishers employ inexperienced narrators to work on major releases by big-name authors? I know everyone has to start somewhere, which is why I make a point of picking up audios using first time – or very early-in-their-careers – narrators; there have to be some who start out fairly well and then get better over time. Sadly, however, most of the newbies I have listened to recently have turned out to be fairly poor and have not done justice to the stories to which they have been assigned. Giving this book to an untried narrator is akin to giving the kid next door the lead role in Hamlet at the RSC. A Strange Scottish Shore is another title that’s being consigned to the “wish they hadn’t done that” pile, because while Gemma Massot has an attractive speaking voice, she lacks the experience and acting chops necessary to perform a tale of such complexity and bring it to life.

A Strange Scottish Shore is the second book in Juliana Gray’s quirky series of Edwardian era historical mysteries (with an unusual twist) featuring the intrepid Miss Emmeline Truelove and the dashing but enigmatic Marquess of Silverton. When I picked up the first book (A Most Extraordinary Pursuit – and it would be wise to read or listen to that before starting this one) I was expecting a straightforward historical mystery, but quickly had to adjust my expectations when our heroine began routinely having conversations with the deceased Queen Victoria and, later on, her late father. Miss Truelove, who had been secretary to the political colossus that was the Duke of Olympia up until his death, was asked to travel to the Greek islands in order to track down the new duke, who had gone missing, in the company of the unspeakably gorgeous but empty-headed Lord Silverton. Silverton, naturally, turned out to be far from stupid (he’s an early 20th century James Bond!) and what followed was an intriguing and thoroughly entertaining story that combined elements of mystery, mythology and time travel with a soupçon of romance and turned out to be unlike anything else I’ve read in the genre and left me eager for more.

You can read the rest of this review at AudioGals.

This Side of Murder (Verity Kent #1) by Anna Lee Huber


This title may be purchased from Amazon

England, 1919. Verity Kent’s grief over the loss of her husband pierces anew when she receives a cryptic letter, suggesting her beloved Sidney may have committed treason before his untimely death. Determined to dull her pain with revelry, Verity’s first impulse is to dismiss the derogatory claim. But the mystery sender knows too much—including the fact that during the war, Verity worked for the Secret Service, something not even Sidney knew.

Lured to Umbersea Island to attend the engagement party of one of Sidney’s fellow officers, Verity mingles among the men her husband once fought beside, and discovers dark secrets—along with a murder clearly meant to conceal them. Relying on little more than a coded letter, the help of a dashing stranger, and her own sharp instincts, Verity is forced down a path she never imagined—and comes face to face with the shattering possibility that her husband may not have been the man she thought he was. It’s a truth that could set her free—or draw her ever deeper into his deception . . .

Rating: B+

With two series of historical mysteries already on the go – Lady Darby and Gothic Myths – Anna Lee Huber jumps into her new Verity Kent series with This Side of Murder, a smashing and engrossing tale of deceit, murder and betrayal set just after World War I.   As with Ms. Huber’s other books, the story is told in the first person from the heroine’s PoV, and there is plenty of astute observation and historical flavour that puts the reader firmly into the world of post-war England some seven months after the Armistice. The isolated island setting and disparate group of individuals who comprise the secondary cast list are most definitely reminiscent of some of the works of Agatha Christie, but this is no copy-cat story, and it will certainly work for fans of historical mysteries whether they’re fans of Christie or not (for the record, I’m not, and it certainly worked for me!).

Mrs. Verity Kent is about to decline an invitation to a house party to celebrate the engagement of one of her late husband’s closest friends when she receives an anonymous note indicating that Sidney  Kent may have been a traitor.  The sender clearly knows that Verity worked for the Secret Service during the war  – something she had never even told her husband – so intrigued, angry and wanting desperately to find out the truth, Verity changes her mind about the party and plans to attend, intending to see what she can find out from Sidney’s former comrades.

She is on her way to Poole Harbour at the wheel of her late husband’s prized possession, his Pierce-Arrow, when she almost collides with a Rolls Royce coming in the opposite direction.  Having ascertained no damage has been done or injury sustained, the driver of the Rolls, a handsome gentleman a few years Verity’s senior, introduces himself as Max, Lord Ryde.  During the course of their short conversation, Verity learns that not only is Max on the way to the Ponsonby house party, but that he had known Sidney and, for a short time, been his commanding officer.

Verity and Max jump back into their respective cars and head for the harbour, where the rest of the party is awaiting their arrival.  It’s a fairly disparate group; a few single men and women, three couples… none of whom appear – at first – to have a great deal in common, although it emerges that all of the men had served together in the same battalion as Sidney Kent, the “unlucky” Thirtieth – so-called because it was all but wiped out at the Somme.  Relations are strained and tensions run high as harsh words are exchanged and unpleasant accusations fly around; it’s clear this group of men doesn’t want to speak of or be reminded of their wartime experiences and actions – and just as clear that there are dangerous secrets being kept, secrets that someone is prepared to kill to protect.

Anna Lee Huber has crafted a truly captivating mystery here, one which has its roots in the trenches and on the mud-laden, bloody battlefields of northern France.  She very skillfully builds the tension and atmosphere of paranoia among the characters and does a superb job of portraying the post-war mood in England where so many people were coping with so much pain and loss and attempting to move past the horrible things they saw and did during the conflict.  There’s a real sense that the characters are barely able to contain their emotions beneath a thin veneer that could crack at any time, and while Verity is no exception, she’s a thoroughly likeable character; clever, resourceful and resilient. She married Sidney Kent shortly before he left for France and had been looking forward to beginning their lives together, but it was not to be.  They only managed to spend a few short periods of time together during his army leaves, and the fact that she never really had the chance to get to know Sidney has made her grief even more difficult to cope with. Like many others in her situation, she tried to numb the pain by drinking too much and partying too hard, using forced high spirits and plenty of booze as a survival mechanism.  But unlike many young women of her class, she was able to ‘do her bit’ during the war by working for the Secret Service, which did at least give her something to focus on besides her grief in the time immediately following Sidney’s death.  Now the war is over, she is struggling not only to cope with his loss, but also with the loss of the sense of purpose she had gained as a result of her work.

She’s a very relatable heroine and I very much enjoyed following her as she and Max try to work out who is murdering house-guests while she is quietly pursuing her own investigations into the accusations levelled at Sidney.  Verity is a little confused – and perhaps feels a bit guilty – about the fact that she is attracted to Max, but a sudden and very unexpected development gives her no time to contemplate it and instead causes her to question everything she knows about Sidney and her marriage and sends her investigation off in a different – and dangerous -direction.

The mystery is very well-constructed and kept me guessing throughout as I eagerly turned the pages, anxiously awaiting each new twist, turn and clue.  It’s wrapped up most satisfactorily by the end of the book and the evil-doers are brought to justice – but Verity is left with a completely new set of challenges to face, and I am eager to find out just how she confronts them.

This Side of Murder is a terrific start to this new series of historical mysteries and is a book I have no qualms about recommending to all, whether you’re a fan of the genre, the author, or are new to her work.

A Strange Scottish Shore (Emmeline Truelove #2) by Juliana Gray

This title may be purchased from Amazon

Scotland, 1906. A mysterious object discovered inside an ancient castle calls Maximilian Haywood, the new Duke of Olympia, and his fellow researcher Emmeline Truelove north to the remote Orkney Islands. No stranger to the study of anachronisms in archeological digs, Haywood is nevertheless puzzled by the artifact: a suit of clothing that, according to family legend, once belonged to a selkie who rose from the sea and married the castle’s first laird.

But Haywood and Truelove soon realize they’re not the only ones interested in the selkie’s strange hide. When their mutual friend Lord Silverton vanishes in the night from an Edinburgh street, their quest takes a dangerous turn through time, which puts Haywood’s extraordinary talents—and Truelove’s courage—to their most breathtaking test yet.

Rating: A-

When I read A Most Extraordinary Pursuit, the first of Juliana Gray’s historical mystery series featuring the intrepid Emmeline Truelove, I wasn’t – at first – quite sure what to think.  There’s a mystery, yes, and a bit of romance… but I wasn’t expecting the time travel element or the fact that the heroine has regular conversations with both her deceased father and the late Queen Victoria!  In the end, however, I enjoyed the story, which is quite unlike anything I’ve read before – or since, really – and in which the author does a great job of interweaving the various plot elements – mystery, romance, time-travel and oddness! – with a caper-type adventure and a hefty dose of Greek mythology.  The somewhat starchy Truelove and the gorgeously dashing Lord Silverton made a wonderfully odd couple as they struck sparks off each other throughout their travels and I was sorry to leave them at the end while also looking forward to the next book and hoping for answers to some of the many questions raised.

Before I go on, I should point out that there are likely to be spoilers for A Most Extraordinary Pursuit in this review, so if you haven’t yet read that book, proceed with caution.  And I’ll add that while it might be possible to read A Strange Scottish Shore on its own, I wouldn’t recommend it.

Maximillian Haywood – who became the Duke of Olympia upon the death of his formidable great uncle – has made a name for himself as an archaeologist, and specifically as one with expertise in historical anachronisms; in analysing objects discovered in strata at a time and place they shouldn’t have existed.  In the previous book, Max had gone missing – had been kidnapped, in fact – which is what led to Silverton and Truelove’s expedition to Greece to find him, and eventually to the discovery that Max is possessed of an incredible power which somehow enables him to reach through time and bring people through to the present or send them back to the past.  A Strange Scottish Shore picks up a few months after Truelove and Silverton parted on the Greek island of Skyros, having located the duke and gone their separate ways.

Truelove is no longer working as the Duke of Olympia’s secretary and instead heads up The Haywood Institute for the Study of Time which Max set up following his return from Greece.  He has sent for her to join him at a hunting party being held in the north of Scotland by Lord Thurso, where he has come across an object that doesn’t belong – but as she is boarding the train in London, Truelove catches sight of a familiar face, one of the men she, Silverton and Max had encountered on the Greek island of Naxos months earlier.  She knows he is likely following her to Scotland to get to Max and to get hold of the documents she is carrying to him – but before she can think more on the matter, she is joined in her first class compartment by none other than the Marquess of Silverton, looking as cheerfully handsome and nonchalant as ever as he informs her he’s received a telegram from Max and is also on the way to join the hunting party.

The sudden appearance of the red-haired man she had glimpsed in London sees Silverton haring off in pursuit, but following a scuffle, the man jumps from the train, and the ensuing delay while the matter is investigated leaves Silverton and Truelove unable to continue to their destination that day and forced to stay in Edinburgh overnight. Worried that perhaps the man is still following them, Silverton announces his intention to stay the night in her room, on the sofa of course – but when she wakes, he – and her document portfolio – are gone.

Truelove continues her journey and is met at Thurso station by Max, whom, she is troubled to discover, has no notion of what could have happened to their friend.  Once arrived at the castle, Max is able to show Truelove exactly what he has found that has so intrigued him.  Hidden away at the bottom of an old wooden chest is a suit made of a cool, slippery, unknown material that appears to have been fashioned for a tall, adult female.  The chest was found during the refurbishment being undertaken at one of the family’s properties in the Orkney Islands – an old, dilapidated castle which the present owner, Mr. Magnusson – the illegitimate son of Lord Thurso – intends to remodel into an exclusive hotel and resort. Neither Max nor Truelove has any idea what the suit is made of or its purpose, when Magnusson tells them it’s a selkie suit and then of the old family legend that tells of their ancestor – a fisherman – who fell in love with a beautiful maiden who came from the sea.  Having fallen instantly in love with her, the fisherman found her sealskin suit and hid it so she could never swim away and leave him – she stayed for seven years and bore him two children, but then found her suit and disappeared back into the sea.

Shortly after this discovery, Truelove and Max come face to face one more with their red-headed nemesis – who introduces himself as Hunter – and who seems to want something from them that they do not have.  He also has knowledge of the future, telling Max that he will write a book in 1921 about his experiences with time travel and says that he himself was born in 1985; but before he can explain further or harm either of them, Magnusson intervenes and Hunter escapes by diving out the window into the sea below.

When, the next day, Truelove receives a telegram from the duchess asking for information about Silverton’s whereabouts, she is forced to confront the heart-breaking truth; that he really is missing and she has no idea how to find him or even where to look for him.  Until something happens that makes her think that perhaps asking where to look is the wrong question…

A Strange Scottish Shore is an incredibly creative and entertaining story that kept me eagerly turning the pages as I wondered what had happened to Silverton, how – and if – Truelove was ever going to find him, exactly what Max’s power entails and how all of it related to the legend of the selkie, which is very cleverly woven throughout the novel with excerpts from it prefacing each chapter.  (The author points out in her note at the end that while this legend is her own invention, such stories are frequently to be found in Scottish folklore).  The characterisation of both leads is excellent and Truelove’s distinctive narrative voice is as strong as ever.  She is intelligent and perceptive, but wary of falling for Silverton, while he is a thoroughly charming rogue who, as her father tells her, should not be judged by the mask he wears.  Their relationship continues along the same lines as in the first book until his disappearance, when Truelove is forced to confront the truth of her feelings, and by her willingness to make a potentially life-changing sacrifice in order to find him, to admit that her attempts to resist him were useless.

The mix of romance, mystery and the supernatural is just about right for someone like me, who likes there to be an emphasis on the romance in mystery and adventure stories – and saying that is probably a bit of a spoiler, so I’m not going to say any more about the plot, which is complex without being impenetrable (but you do need to concentrate!) and superbly constructed.  Ms. Gray does answer some of the questions I had at the end of book one, but then proceeds to pose more and the book ends… if not quite on a cliffhanger, then certainly at a point at which it is clear that there is more to come.

A Strange Scottish Shore has cemented my commitment to this series, and I am eagerly looking forward to more. I’d definitely recommend both books to anyone who enjoys romantic historical mysteries and is on the lookout for something a little out of the ordinary.

Cocoa Beach by Beatriz Williams (audiobook) – Narrated by Eva Kaminsky and Alex Wyndham

This title may be downloaded from Audible via Amazon

Burdened by a dark family secret, Virginia Fortescue flees her oppressive home in New York City for the battlefields of World War I France. While an ambulance driver for the Red Cross, she meets a charismatic British army surgeon whose persistent charm opens her heart to the possibility of love. As the war rages, Virginia falls into a passionate affair with the dashing Captain Simon Fitzwilliam, only to discover that his past has its own dark secrets – secrets that will damage their eventual marriage and propel her back across the Atlantic to the sister and father she left behind.

Five years later, in the early days of Prohibition, the newly widowed Virginia Fitzwilliam arrives in the tropical boomtown of Cocoa Beach, Florida, to settle her husband’s estate. Despite the evidence, Virginia does not believe Simon perished in the fire that destroyed the seaside home he built for her and their young daughter. Separated from her husband since the early days of their marriage, the headstrong Virginia plans to uncover the truth, for the sake of the daughter Simon never met.

Simon’s brother and sister welcome her with open arms and introduce her to a dazzling new world of citrus groves, white beaches, bootleggers, and Prohibition agents. But Virginia senses a predatory presence lurking beneath the irresistible, hedonistic surface of this coastal oasis. The more she learns about Simon and his mysterious business interests, the more she fears that the dangers that surrounded Simon now threaten her and their daughter’s life as well.

Rating: Narration – A- Content – B

Having very much enjoyed listening to The Wicked City earlier this year (and being a fan of this author’s alter-ego, Juliana Gray), I was keen to listen to Beatriz Williams’ latest offering, Cocoa Beach, which follows a young widow as she tries to discover the truth about the estranged husband who recently perished in a house fire at his Florida home. It is loosely linked to both The Wicked City and the book which preceded it, A Certain Age, insofar as some of the characters have either appeared or been mentioned in one or both of those novels, but otherwise Cocoa Beach can be enjoyed as a standalone.

In 1917, Virginia Fortescue flees her oppressive home in New York to drive ambulances back and forth between the trenches and the field hospitals of Northern France. The USA has not yet joined the war, but she and a group of other volunteers led by the wealthy and formidable Mrs. DeForest are out there “doing their bit”, in whatever capacities they can be useful. On a trip to pick up some wounded men and take them to the hospital Mrs. DeForest has set up in an old château, Virginia meets the handsome, charismatic Captain Simon Fitzwilliam, an army surgeon, and he ends up travelling back to the hospital with her in order to inspect the facilities. There’s an instant frisson of attraction between the two, although Virginia is wary; not only is he quite a bit older than she is (she’s twenty-one, he’s mid-thirties) and almost too good to be true, but her complicated relationship with her stern, reclusive father means she has little experience with men and is uncomfortable around them. Yet by the end of this brief time spent together, Virginia is desperately smitten and so, it seems, is Simon, and he tells her he’s going to write to her. Virginia is on cloud nine – until one of the other girls in her unit tells her Simon is married, with a young son.

You can read the rest of this review at AudioGals.