The Wicked City by Beatriz Williams (audiobook) – Narrated by Julie McKay and Dara Rosenberg

This title may be downloaded from Audible via Amazon

The Jazz Age comes alive with a love story for the ages: a rugged Prohibition agent and a saucy flapper from one of Appalachia’s most notorious bootlegging families…
Manhattan, present day.

Ella Hawthorne thinks she’s going crazy when she hears strange noises coming from the walls of her new apartment late at night. When she discovers that it used to be home to a speakeasy during the Jazz Age, she’s determined to discover the building’s secrets.

Manhattan, 1924.
Geneva ‘Gin’ Kelly, a smart-mouthed, red-haired flapper, reluctantly agrees to help rugged Prohibition enforcement agent Oliver Anson catch her stepfather, a notorious bootlegger. But the truth will shake Manhattan society to its foundations….

Rating: Narration – B+; Content – B+

The Wicked City tells the story of two very different women who live in New York City at very different times. In 1998, Ella Gilbert has just left her husband, and in 1924, Geneva Rose Kelly – known to her friends as Gin or Ginger – is a bright young thing who can be found most evenings at Christopher’s the speakeasy next door to the apartment building where she lives. While I enjoyed both stories, the book isn’t equally split between the two; it seemed to me as though we spent about 65% of the time with Ginger and 35% with Ella, but because both storylines were equally interesting, I didn’t find myself getting impatient with one while waiting to get back to the other. That said, there are a few pacing issues in Ginger’s sections of the story, places where an overabundance of descriptive prose impedes the progress of the narrative, but this becomes less frequent as the story progresses – or I just didn’t notice it as much.

When Ella caught her husband of six years having sex with a prostitute in the stairwell of their apartment building, she was devastated and left him that very evening. She has just moved into a new place in Greenwich Village and is trying to get her bearings, pull herself back together and decide what to do next, whether to attempt to reconcile or to start divorce proceedings. Deciding to do her laundry early on a Saturday morning because she thinks it’s likely the machines will be free and it’s unlikely she’ll meet anyone else down in the basement, she is startled and a bit miffed to discover that not only are all the machines in use, but that she’s not alone.

You can read the rest of this review at AudioGals.

My Best Books of 2016 – at All About Romance

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Over the past week or so All About Romance has been publishing the team’s lists of their Top Ten books read in 2016. The vast majority of these are books published in 2016, although a few are books published previously that have been read this year.

All my choices are 2016 titles, and as usual, it was a tough list to compile. I’ve had a good reading year (I’ll be taking a look at my stats at some point and posting about those) and at AAR, have awarded a good number of B Grades and up, indicating that I read many more books I enjoyed than books I didn’t, which I count a definite plus.

Pinning it down to ten books was TOUGH, as was picking an outright “book of the year”, because this year (unlike last), that moniker could have been applied to practically every book on my list. But being I’m a bit of an angst-bunny, I went for the book that ripped out my heart and stomped on it a few times, AND which I’d been most eagerly anticipating.  Click on the link and all will be revealed!

My Best of 2016

A Splendid Defiance by Stella Riley (audiobook) – Narrated by Alex Wyndham

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This title may be downloaded from Audible via Amazon.

For two years, England has been in the grip of Civil War. In Banbury, Oxfordshire, the Cavaliers hold the castle, the Roundheads want it back and the town is full of zealous Puritans. Consequently, the gulf between Captain Justin Ambrose and Abigail Radford, the sister of a fanatically religious shopkeeper, ought to be unbridgeable. The key to both the fate of the castle and that of Justin and Abigail lies in defiance…but will it be enough?

A Splendid Defiance is a dramatic and enchanting story of forbidden love, set against the turmoil and anguish of the first English Civil War.

Rating: Narration – A; Content – A

Anyone who – like me – appreciates Historical Romance that has a firm emphasis on the “Historical” will find a great many things to enjoy in this new audiobook version of Stella Riley’s A Splendid Defiance.  Set during the turbulent years of the English Civil War, the novel tells the true story of the small garrison of around three hundred and fifty men who held the strategically important Royalist stronghold of Banbury Castle in Oxfordshire in the face of overwhelming odds, and many of the characters who grace its pages are people who actually existed.

Skilfully interwoven with the story of the castle and its defenders is the glorious (but fictional) slow-burn romance between Justin Ambrose, a cynical, acerbic captain in the King’s army and Abigail Radford, whose brother, Jonas, is a leader of the local community and a die-hard Puritan.  The romance starts very slowly – so anyone who expects the first kiss between the hero and heroine to happen in chapter three is going to be disappointed – but builds steadily throughout and is all the more believable as a result.  Justin and Abigail begin the story as strangers and the author allows their relationship to develop in a manner that feels perfectly realistic, considering he’s a serving army officer with duties to perform and Abby lives a very restrictive life controlled by her harsh zealot of a brother.

You can read the rest of this review at AudioGals

Why Mermaids Sing (Sebastian St. Cyr #3) by C.S. Harris (audiobook) – Narrated by Davina Porter

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This title may be downloaded from Audible.

Murder has jarred London’s elite. The sons of prominent families have been found at dawn in public places, partially butchered, with strange objects stuffed in their mouths. Once again the local magistrate turns to Sebastian St. Cyr, Viscount Devlin, for help. Moving from the gritty world of London’s docks to the drawing rooms of Mayfair, Sebastian confronts his most puzzling – and disturbing – case yet.

Rating: Narration – B+; Content – B+

C.S. Harris’ series of mysteries set in Regency England featuring aristocratic sleuth Sebastian St. Cyr is one I’ve been meaning to get around to reading for ages, but with the series now comprising eleven books with more on the way, I shifted it from my TBR to my TBL pile earlier this year. I enjoyed book one, What Angels Fear, a great deal and as a result, decided to carry on with the series in audio format.

I’m now up to book three, Why Mermaids Sing. While the central mystery in each book is self-contained and resolved by the end, there are plot threads and character relationships that are carried across from book to book, so there will undoubtedly be spoilers for books one and two in this review.

Sebastian St. Cyr is in his late twenties and was, up until recently, in the army fighting on the Continent. The youngest of the Earl of Hendon’s three sons, the deaths of his older brothers mean that he is now his father’s heir, Viscount Devlin, but the relationship between the two men is strained.

You can read the rest of this review at AudioGals.

The Ballroom by Anna Hope

ballroom 2This title may be purchased from Amazon.

Yorkshire, England, 1911: After a moment of defiance at the factory where she has worked since she was a child, Ella Fay finds herself an unwilling patient at the Sharston Asylum. Ella knows she is not mad, but she might have to learn to play the game before she can make a true bid for freedom. John Mulligan is a chronic patient, frozen with grief since the death of his child, but when Ella runs towards him one morning in an attempt to escape the place where he has found refuge, everything changes. It is in the ornate ballroom at the centre of the asylum, where the male and female patients are allowed to gather every Friday evening to dance, that Ella and John begin a tentative, secret correspondence that will have shattering consequences, as love and the possibility of redemption are set against one ambitious doctor’s eagerness to make his mark in the burgeoning field of eugenics, at all costs.

Set over the heatwave summer of 1911, at a time when England was at the point of revolt, The Ballroom is a tale of unlikely love and dangerous obsession, of madness and sanity, and of who gets to decide which is which.

Rating: B+

The Ballroom is a beautifully written, haunting tale that takes place during the summer heatwave of 1911 and is set in a large asylum near the Yorkshire moors. It’s a story that is by turns brutal, uplifting, heartbreaking and chilling, showing how easy it was to commit someone back then; anyone regarded as different, believed likely to be troublemakers or who were just plain unwanted – asylums were a regular ‘dumping ground’ for those who were considered ‘unfit for society’. The novel also very cleverly poses questions as to the nature of insanity and, more importantly, just who gets to decide what is sane and what is not.

The story is told in the third person through the viewpoints of three different people. Ella Fay is a young woman who has worked in factories since she was eight years old. She now works as a spinner and over the years, she has become more and more affected by the lack of daylight – the windows are painted over and dirty – and fresh air in the room, and finally snaps, breaking a window to let in the light and air. We would today recognise someone in the grip of depression, but in 1911, Ella is regarded as a troublemaker and accused of damaging the machinery at the factory. She is confused and distressed when she is committed to the asylum, and at first, tries to escape. But after an unsuccessful attempt, she decides instead that the best thing to do is to keep her head down and her nose clean; to work hard and hope that she will soon be released.

Irishman John Mulligan is one of the ‘chronics’ – the patients classified as suffering from long-term illnesses and who are unlikely to ever leave the asylum. Sent there for the treatment of the melancholia which descended upon him following the deaths of his wife and child, he is articulate, intelligent and kind, and is trusted enough to work outside either on the Sharston farm or – less pleasantly – digging graves which will eventually be occupied by deceased inmates. It’s on one of the grave-digging days that John sees Ella, running as though for her life – and even though she is caught and taken back to the asylum, she becomes associated in his mind with the idea of freedom.

The third protagonist is Doctor Charles Fuller, a young man who failed to live up to the expectations of his father, a prominent surgeon.  His real love is music, and one of his duties is as bandmaster to the small group of staff members who play in the band that provides the music for the dance held every Friday for the asylum’s inmates, which is the one time each week when the male and female patients are allowed to mix.  Charles is interested in the Eugenics movement, which was popular among a number of scientists and politicians – notably one Winston Churchill – at the time.  Charles doesn’t completely subscribe to the view that the ‘feeble minded’ should be sterilised to prevent breeding, and instead wants to explore the benefits of music as therapy.  He’s a complex character, and possibly the most interesting of the three narrators; he wants to do the best for the people in his care, and hopefully make a name for himself along the way, but as the story progresses his desperation to prove himself and his conflicted feelings about his sexuality lead him to a dangerous obsession which clearly illustrates how easily the line between sanity and insanity can blur.

Ms. Hope does a splendid job of depicting the lives of the inmates and staff at the asylum and of creating an atmosphere of darkness, apprehension and uncertainty.  The days are monotonous, and the weeks would merge into one another were it not for the Friday night dance held in the beautiful ballroom.  The inmates look forward to this one chance to snatch some sort of normality in their lives, and it’s here that Ella and John finally meet.  Their illicit friendship and romance is carried on through letters which they exchange whenever they can.  John’s is a poetic soul and his letters are beautiful, but Ella, to her shame, cannot read, and gets her friend Clemency Church to read them to her and then write her responses.  Clem is a private patient at Sharston, sent there by her well-to-do family as the result of a suicide attempt and diagnosed as having ‘hysteria’ – in reality a convenient label for a woman who didn’t do as she was told or didn’t fit the pattern as to what society dictated a woman should be.

The Ballroom was inspired by the author’s discovery that her great-great grandfather had been an inmate at the West Riding Mental Hospital, upon which Sharston Asylum is loosely based.   But at its heart, it is a compelling, touching story about keeping hope alive and seeking light in dark places.  The novel is perhaps a little slow to start, but that is really my only criticism; once it got going, I became completely engrossed in the world within the walls of this harsh institution and in the slowly unfolding lives of the characters.  The writing is superb and often poetic, and the ending, while bittersweet, is moving and emotionally satisfying.  This is a book to be savoured and one I’d heartily recommend to fans of evocative and well-written historical fiction.

The House in Quill Court by Charlotte Betts

the house in quill court

This title may be purchased from Amazon.

Venetia Lovell lives by the sea in Kent with her pretty, frivolous mother and idle younger brother. Venetia’s father, Theo, is an interior decorator to the rich and frequently travels away from home, leaving his sensible and artistic daughter to look after the family. Venetia designs paper hangings and she and her father often daydream about having an imaginary shop where they would display the highest quality furniture, fabrics and art to his clients.

When a handsome but antagonistic stranger, Jack Chamberlaine, arrives at the Lovell’s cottage just before Christmas bringing terrible news, Venetia’s world is turned upside-down and the family have no option but to move to London, to the House in Quill Court and begin a new life. Here, Venetia’s courage and creativity are tested to breaking point, and she discovers a love far greater than she could have ever imagined . . .

Rating: B

Charlotte Betts is an author I have been aware of for some time, but only recently have I begun to read her books. I thoroughly enjoyed The Spice Merchant’s Wife, which is set in Restoration London and in which Ms. Betts impressed me with her ability to imbue her story with a strong sense of time and place and to depict the trials and tribulations of the day-to-day lives of the characters. In her latest novel, The House in Quill Court, the setting is Regency London, and the author has once again made use of meticulous research in order to bring the city and its denizens to life and to craft an entertaining story featuring engaging – and not so engaging – characters.

Venetia Lovell has lived her entire life on the Kent coast, where she and her brother have grown up secure in the love of both their parents. Life isn’t always easy, but she is happy; her mother and father are devoted to each other, even though Theo Lovell spends a lot of time travelling around the country as part of his job as what we would today call an interior designer. Venetia has inherited her father’s talent for creating attractive patterns and colour schemes, and even though it will be rather unorthodox, she hopes she will soon join him in his work. She has already come up with a few designs for paper hangings which are being produced for use in selected homes, and together, they dream of opening an elegant showroom to showcase the highest quality furniture, fabrics and art to their clients

But when Mr. Lovell dies suddenly, Venetia’s world is turned upside down and inside out. Not only does she have to cope with the death of a beloved parent, she is confronted by the completely unexpected news that her father had been living a double life for the last two decades or so, travelling between his family in Kent and another family he maintained elsewhere. Venetia is shocked and betrayed – but there is more devastation to come. Her father’s step-son, Major John (Jack) Chamberlaine delivers the final blow; Mr. Lovell’s last wish was that both his families should unite under the same roof and work together to earn the income to necessary to support themselves.

Bewildered and hurt, both families relocate to Quill Court in the City of London.  The Major is severely disapproving and not at all inclined to be conciliatory, but appears discomfited when Venetia tells him about her father’s plans to take her into his business.  Jack then takes her to a busy commercial street in Cheapside where he shows her a shop laid out just as she and her father used to imagine, and which she realises must have been his plan for providing for his two families.

Unfortunately, however, the interior is in a bad way.  Many of the fabrics have been destroyed, ornaments smashed, paint smeared;  Jack reveals that Mr. Lovell had happened upon some ruffians while they were intent upon the damage and that that it was the shock of discovering it that killed him.

After absorbing that sad news, Venetia determines then and there that she is going to carry out her father’s intentions.  Her ambition takes flight; the family will make a living by supplying a bespoke interior design service to the upper and newly emerging middle classes.  Jack is sceptical at first, but Venetia’s enthusiasm and her obvious talent and belief in their ability to succeed eventually win him over and Lovell and Chamberlaine is born.

The story is told from the viewpoints of Venetia and her maid, Kitty, in alternating chapters, and the author carefully intertwines their stories, showing two very different lifestyles and two different sides of London through their contrasting experiences.  Both young women have to work for a living, but there the similarities end;  Kitty’s work is hard manual labour while Venetia’s is creative and fulfilling.  Ms. Betts also does an excellent job with her portrait of the darker, seamier side of Regency London, a place where law enforcement was patchy to say the least (the Metropolitan Police Force was not formed until 1829) and where elegant, newly built townhouses co-existed with squalid slums, rookeries and brothels.

Most of the latter half of the book is taken up with Venetia’s determination to unite the local shopkeepers to fight the underworld boss who runs most of the criminal activity in London and wider afield, and who has all the local shops tied into his protection racket.  Some of the decisions she makes are rather naïve but Ms. Betts doesn’t shy away from showing that what she wants to achieve isn’t going to be easy and that in a war, innocent people can be hurt.

The story is well-paced and builds to an exciting dénouement that kept me eagerly turning the pages, although I found the writing simplistic in places and the plot turns on perhaps one too many coincidences.  The alternating storylines work well, although there were times when it was a little frustrating to end a chapter wanting to know what happened to that character next and having to switch to the other story – but the chapters themselves are fairly short, so that wasn’t too much of a problem.  The romantic elements in the book are fairly low-key; Venetia and Jack move slowly from antagonism to uneasy friendship and then to more, and while Kitty also finds love, her happiness is short-lived.

Taken as a whole, I enjoyed The House in Quill Court in spite of those reservations about the plotting and the writing.  The characters are well-drawn and there’s no doubt that the author’s research into the London of the period – complete with its gin palaces, street-hawkers, grand houses and grander ladies – has been extensive.  That rich backdrop permeates the novel, putting readers squarely in the stinking, muck-strewn streets and alleyways of the East End, and then enabling us to enter Venetia’s showroom and see and feel the colours, designs and fabrics that she stocks there.

I’d definitely recommend this book to anyone looking to enjoy a well-written, intricately researched piece of historical fiction.

Julian Fellowes’ Belgravia (audiobook) – Narrated by Juliet Stevenson

belgravia

This title is available to download from Audible via Amazon.

Julian Fellowes’s Belgravia is the story of a secret. A secret that unravels behind the porticoed doors of London’s grandest postcode.

Set in the 1840s, when the upper echelons of society began to rub shoulders with the emerging industrial nouveau riche, Belgravia is peopled by a rich cast of characters. But the story begins on the eve of the Battle of Waterloo in 1815. At the Duchess of Richmond’s now legendary ball, one family’s life will change forever….

Rating: Narration – A+; Content – B+

I’m sure that most people will be familiar with the name of the writer of Gosford Park and the creator of the hugely successful Downton Abbey. In his latest novel, Julian Fellowes continues to explore England’s past and to look particularly at the class system and the way in which convention and reputation so dominated British society in the 19th century. As one would expect from an Oscar winning screenwriter, the story is beautifully written and developed; and as one would expect from Julian Fellowes, it’s full of acute social observation and comment delivered in a classically understated, English manner. The book’s gentle pacing may not suit all tastes, but when you throw in the hugely talented Juliet Stevenson into the mix as the narrator, that only allows the listener more time to listen to her beautiful voice and enjoy her truly outstanding performance.

You can read the rest of this review at AudioGals.

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