The Wedding Officer by Anthony Capella (audiobook) – Narrated by Daniel Philpott


This title may be downloaded from Audible via Amazon

Naive and already war-weary, James Gouding takes up a position in Naples in 1943. What he doesn’t anticipate is that this involves a limited menu of fried Spam fritters and interrogating the would-be Italian fiancees of members of the armed forces.

James’s chance at true heroism arrives when a German tank is sighted and he is caught in its path. However, it is the imperious and dogmatic Livia who opens the hatch and yells at him to stop being such an idiot.

Livia gladly becomes cook, translator and general factotum to James. The two begin to fall in love, but the eruption of Vesuvius triggers a chain of explosive events that will force the two to flee behind enemy lines and will alter their lives immeasurably.

Rating: Narration – A- Content – B+

Anthony Capella’s The Wedding Officer is an enjoyable and engrossing tale set in wartime Italy, which is told through the eyes of a fish-out-of-water young British officer and the fiery Italian widow with whom he falls in love.

Naples in 1944 is now occupied by the allies, and things aren’t all that much better than they were under the Germans. Food is scarce and people are struggling to survive; there’s a thriving black market on which one can obtain just about anything, and most of the women in the town are forced to prostitute themselves in order to keep body and soul together.

This last thing is regarded by the army as the biggest problem of all; venereal disease is rife and supplies of valuable penicillin are frequently stolen (and then resurface on the black market and have to be re-purchased!) but there are also increasing numbers of British soldiers applying for permission to marry Italian women, most of whom the army big-wigs label as prostitutes and therefore regard as not the sort of women they want accompanying their husbands back to England after the war. Captain James Gould is sent to Naples and given the job of interviewing the would-be brides and is horrified at the lax attitude of his predecessor, who seems only too happy to dine out at restaurants supplied by the black market and to turn a blind eye to many of the less than legal activities going on around him.

You can read the rest of this review at AudioGals

Traitor’s Knot by Cryssa Bazos

This title may be purchased from Amazon.

England 1650: Civil War has given way to an uneasy peace in the year since Parliament executed King Charles I.

Royalist officer James Hart refuses to accept the tyranny of the new government, and to raise funds for the restoration of the king’s son, he takes to the road as a highwayman.

Elizabeth Seton has long been shunned for being a traitor’s daughter. In the midst of the new order, she risks her life by sheltering fugitives from Parliament in a garrison town. But her attempts to rebuild her life are threatened, first by her own sense of injustice, then by falling in love with the dashing Hart.

The lovers’ loyalty is tested through war, defeat and separation. James must fight his way back to the woman he loves, while Elizabeth will do anything to save him, even if it means sacrificing herself.

Rating: B

Cryssa Bazos’ début novel, Traitor’s Knot, is a strongly written and very readable story set during the years immediately following the execution of King Charles I at the end of the Second English Civil War in 1649.  Ms. Bazos has clearly researched extensively, and has a very approachable style which draws the reader into the story and the uncertain world of seventeenth century England, a country torn apart by religious and political divides which have yet to be healed.

The story is told through the points of view of James Hart, a former captain in the Royalist army and Elizabeth Seton, whose father was branded a traitor for his involvement in the Crabchurch conspiracy of 1645 in which groups of royalist supporters in Weymouth and other towns along the Dorset coast attempted to deliver the ports back into royalist hands.  Things have been tough for Elizabeth and her mother since her father’s death, and when her mother dies, Elizabeth has little alternative but to move in with her older sister and her husband, a member of the town’s parliamentarian garrison.  The prospect fills Elizabeth with dread – but then she recalls that her mother had a sister, Isabel, who lives near Warwick.  Desperate, Elizabeth writes to her aunt begging her to take her in, and is relieved when Isabel agrees.

On the journey to Warwick, the carriage transporting Elizabeth and other passengers – including Sir Richard Crawford-Bowes, the local justice of the peace – is held up by a highwayman who, rather strangely, robs Sir Richard and no-one else.  Arriving at Ellendale, she finds Aunt Isabel is somewhat stiff and aloof, but she nonetheless welcomes Elizabeth to her home.  Like her deceased sister, Isabel is well-versed in the art of healing and Elizabeth watches, frustrated, as Isabel supplies the wants and needs of the community.  Elizabeth was taught the healing arts by her mother and longs to help, but it takes a while before Isabel is prepared to allow her the use of her still-room and supplies.  When she does, however, Elizabeth soon proves her skill and begins working alongside her aunt – but it’s not long before an incident late one night confirms her suspicions that there is something risky going on at Ellendale.

James Hart has worked as an Ostler at the Chequer and Crowne Inn since the decisive defeat of the royalist cause at Naseby, but hasn’t given up on the Stuarts and wants nothing more than to see the King – Charles II – restored to the throne.  For the past few years, he has been ‘collecting’ funds from unsuspecting travellers making their way to and from Warwick, with the intention of raising a small force of men and eventually fighting at the king’s side when he is ready to make his bid to recapture the throne.

Cryssa Bazos has crafted a complex, entertaining and multi-faceted story in which secrets and intrigue abound and in which the stakes are continually raised – especially after Elizabeth becomes part of the secret society run by her aunt which is dedicated to sheltering fugitives from Parliament and helping them on their way.  She and James Hart fall in love, but with the new constable, Ezekiel Hammond, intent on capturing the elusive Highwayman of Moot Hill and his persistent attention towards Elizabeth, things become increasingly complicated and dangerous for James, Elizabeth and those around them.

When it becomes impossible for James to remain in Warwick any longer, there is only one option open to him; he has long since been determined to join the exiled King Charles II, and with Charles now in Scotland, that’s where James and his hastily collected band of former comrades are headed.  The story now splits into two threads, one that follows James into Scotland and remains with him as he fights for king and country as the King heads south to Worcester and crushing defeat at the hands of Cromwell; and the other which remains with Elizabeth in Warwick and details her persecution by Hammond, whose twisted, thwarted desire for her has made him a dangerous enemy.

I admit that I was more invested in Elizabeth’s storyline in the latter part of the book, which is small-scale and personal, whereas James’ consists of lots of details of battles and troop movements which I found much harder to engage with than Elizabeth’s more human interest plotline.  That said, the author’s decision to separate them throws up some interesting questions; a man is called to fight because of his sense of honour, but what does that mean for those left behind without his protection?  She also illustrates very well the effect that the royalist/parliamentarian divide had on families and communities; both James’ and Elizabeth’s families had a wedge driven down the middle by differing loyalties and clearly, there are still people prepared to work against the new regime in whatever way they can.

The principal are well-drawn, engaging, three dimensional characters who act and sound like people of the time, and there is also a very strong secondary cast to add interest and colour to the various plots and sub-plots.  The romantic storyline is nicely done, although it’s fairly low-key which is why I’d describe this book as historical fiction with romantic elements rather than an historical romance; if you prefer your romance to be more front and centre, this might not be what you’re looking for.  Overall, however, I’d recommend Traitor’s Knot to anyone looking for a well-researched, well-written piece of historical fiction sent in one of the most turbulent – and fascinating – periods of English history.

The Jane Austen Project by Kathleen A. Flynn (audiobook) – Narrated by Saskia Maarleveld

This title may be purchased from Audible via Amazon.

London, 1815: Two travelers – Rachel Katzman and Liam Finucane – arrive in a field in rural England, disheveled and weighed down with hidden money. Turned away at a nearby inn, they are forced to travel by coach all night to London. They are not what they seem but rather colleagues who have come back in time from a technologically advanced future, posing as wealthy West Indies planters – a doctor and his spinster sister. While Rachel and Liam aren’t the first team from the future to “go back”, their mission is by far the most audacious: meet, befriend, and steal from Jane Austen herself.

Carefully selected and rigorously trained by The Royal Institute for Special Topics in Physics, disaster-relief doctor Rachel and actor-turned-scholar Liam have little in common besides the extraordinary circumstances they find themselves in. Circumstances that call for Rachel to stifle her independent nature and let Liam take the lead as they infiltrate Austen’s circle via her favorite brother, Henry.

But diagnosing Jane’s fatal illness and obtaining an unpublished novel hinted at in her letters pose enough of a challenge without the continuous convolutions of living a lie. While her friendship with Jane deepens and her relationship with Liam grows complicated, Rachel fights to reconcile the woman she is with the proper lady 19th-century society expects her to be. As their portal to the future prepares to close, Rachel and Liam struggle with their directive to leave history intact and exactly as they found it…however heartbreaking that may prove.

Rating: Narration – A Content – B+

When I read The Jane Austen Project a few months back, I admit that I approached it with some trepidation. Two people travelling back in time to meet Jane Austen and retrieve a previously unpublished manuscript sounded – on the one hand – like a great premise, and on the other like a potential disaster. The author would have to be very careful with tone and characterisation to make it work – and I’m pleased to say that she strikes the right notes in both cases, displaying a thorough attention to period detail and portraying Jane Austen herself as the sort of witty, intelligent and insightful woman we imagine her to have been.

Austen devotee Doctor Rachel Katzman – a medical doctor who has spent most of her career working in the world’s flashpoints – and actor-turned-academic Professor Liam Finucane have been selected and trained by The Royal Institute for Special Topics in Physics to be able to take on the personas of Doctor William Ravenswood and his sister, Mary when they travel back in time to 1815. They arrive, disoriented and bedraggled in a field just outside Leatherhead in Surrey, with thousands of pounds worth of counterfeit money hidden beneath their clothes and a cover story that they have recently sold off their plantation in Jamaica, freed their slaves and come back to England to live. Unable to secure rooms at the nearest inn because of their lack of luggage and generally suspicious appearance, they hire a chaise and head straight to London where they go about the task of setting themselves up at a respectable address, kitting themselves out as befits a couple of independently wealthy siblings and generally orienting themselves to their new lives in 1815.

You can read the rest of this review at AudioGals.

TBR Challenge: The Wedding Journey by Carla Kelly

This title may be purchased from Amazon

Set against the vivid historical background of the Napoleonic Wars, “The Wedding Journey “is the unforgettable story of Captain Jesse Randall, assistant surgeon of Marching Hospital Number Eight, and his undying love for beautiful, young Nell Mason. A battlefield is no place to wage a campaign of love, and even if it was, Jesse is far too shy to ever confess his love to Nell, who helps the surgeons in the field hospital.

Her father, Captain Bertie Mason, is a compulsive gambler, and when Nell’s mother dies, he desperately agrees to marry her to the despicable Major William Bones to relieve his crushing gambling debts. To prevent such a fate, Jesse hastily weds Nell. He doesn’t dare hope she’ll ever return his devotion.

A marriage on the front lines of the Napoleonic Wars would be difficult enough, but now Major Bones is out for vengeance. As the British army retreats from Burgos for Portugal, Jesse, Nell, and a handful of the sick and stragglers are left behind to fend for themselves. The newly married couple must now draw on all their strength to survive and save their small band, and somehow nurture a love that can endure the most trying of journeys…

Rating: B+

For June’s prompt of Favourite Trope, I turned to Carla Kelly’s The Wedding Journey, the story of a marriage of convenience made during wartime in order to protect the heroine from the threat of being sold off in marriage to pay her father’s debts.  In the hands of this author, however, the story is so much more than the story of two people thrust unexpectedly into marriage; set amid the slaughter and chaos of the Peninsular War, it’s also a story of the struggle to survive against the odds and of how the most ordinary person can call on reserves deep inside to achieve the truly extraordinary.

Elinore Mason  – Nell – has followed the drum for as long as she can remember.  Her father, a captain, is a hard drinker and gambler who doesn’t spare a moment’s thought for his wife and daughter – other than for what they can do for him – and the time Nell doesn’t spend with her ailing mother is spent in the hospital tent, tending to the sick and wounded and helping however she can.  Captain Jesse Randall is a highly competent surgeon, widely respected, well-liked, but quiet and shy – and has been hopelessly in love with Nell for years.

The smarmy Major William Bones also has his eye on Nell, but his intentions are not at all honourable.  After Nell’s mother dies, her father, who is deeply in debt to Bones, agrees to give Nell to him as payment – but to prevent this, Jesse steps up and offers to marry her instead.  He doesn’t have any hope that Nell will ever return his love, but he knows she likes him well enough; and in any case, they can have the marriage annulled at a later date.

Bones, furious at having Nell snatched away from him exacts his revenge in a most appalling way.  With the army preparing to retreat from Burgos into Portugal, Marching Hospital Number Eight is packed up and ready to go the next morning – and awakens to discover that they have been abandoned thanks to Bones’ machinations.  The unit’s commanding officer, Major Sheffield, Jesse and Nell are left with a handful of sick soldiers and army stragglers to fend for themselves and make their own way into Portugal without transport, supplies or protection – and with the French army not far behind them.

The Wedding Journey is probably the most unusual marriage of convenience story I’ve ever read.  Jesse and Nell are both likeable, sensible and determined people and there’s never really any question that they are meant to be together, but the circumstances in which they find themselves continually test them and the bonds they forge as they face danger, sickness, great tragedy and even a madman are perhaps all the stronger for everything that they are forced to go through together.

As is the case with all of Carla Kelly’s books set during the Napoleonic Wars, she doesn’t sugar-coat the difficulties her small band of brothers are facing and nor does she pull her punches when it comes to gritty reality, unafraid to show the terrible consequences of war in all its dirt, blood and horror.  But while the odds against Jesse and Nell are overwhelming, Ms. Kelly still manages to find time for them to talk and learn about each other and even to share the odd joke to lighten the mood.

The book is narrated almost entirely by Jesse, who is, quite simply, the most adorable beta hero.  He’s a ginger-haired Scot, with a dry sense of humour – his inner monologue with Hippocrates is funny and allows us to learn quite a lot about him – he’s resourceful, kind and protective, and is thoroughly dedicated to doing the best for those under his care.  He’s also got a steel backbone and an innate authority that he doesn’t use very often and didn’t really know he had, but which makes him a natural leader and someone who inspires trust in others and makes them want to do their best for him. With the bulk of the story told from his PoV, the reader is able to really connect with him and to see and understand the depth of his compassion and his love for Nell, whom he would do absolutely anything to keep safe.

We don’t spend as much time in Nell’s PoV, so she feels a little less well-developed, but it’s easy to see that she’s clever, strong and resilient and that she’s a little bit smitten with Jesse, but, believing herself to have nothing to offer him besides bad luck and a wastrel father, hadn’t ever thought to look for anything more than friendship.  But as they journey through a Spain laid waste by two opposing armies, she comes to love him as he loves her, the respect and admiration she has long-felt for him morphing into something far deeper.

I suppose the one criticism I can level at the book is that the adventures and misadventures of Marching Hospital Number Eight overshadow the romance somewhat.  Jesse and Nell have so much to deal with that although they spend a lot of time together and clearly make a great team, they don’t have a lot of time to explore their feelings for each other or their new relationship.

The Wedding Journey encompasses high-stakes drama, tragedy, trauma and a very realistic portrait of the sufferings wrought by war, but at the same time, it’s uplifting and imbued with warmth and humour.  The love story between Nell and Jesse is tender and sweet and the writing is intelligent and devoid of sentimentality and yet emotionally satisfying.

Scandal of the Season by Liana LeFay

This title may be purchased from Amazon

Five years ago, Lord Sorin Latham fled England’s shores to avoid heartbreak and scandal in the form of one Lady Eleanor Cramley. On returning home, he finds the young miss he used to scold for lack of decorum is now a stunning woman who fires his blood. But he must resist temptation or risk losing his honor as a gentleman and the friendship of those he holds dear, including Eleanor.

Lady Eleanor is determined to be the paragon of propriety Sorin urged her to become. But now that he’s back, the man she once thought of as an older brother makes her long to be anything but proper. She must make Sorin see her as worthy of his heart and his desire without losing his good opinion, or her Season will end in disgrace.

Rating: C-

Scandal of the Season is a standalone friends-to-lovers historical romance in which the twelve-year age gap between the principals means that the hero has been something of an older brother and mentor figure to the heroine for most of their lives. The premise attracted me – one of my favourite books of all time is Jane Austen’s Emma – but it unfortunately falls largely flat here, as pacing, characterisation and plot issues drag the story down. There is also a particularly problematic scene which I’ll discuss later in the review plus – I spent most of the book wondering what the scandal was and when I was going to find out about it!

Lady Eleanor Cramley, cousin to Charles, Duke of Ashford, grew up in her cousin’s family after the death of her parents when she was a child. Charles’ closest friend, Sorin Latham, Lord Wincanton (Sorin? Seriously? What sort of name is that for a 19th century English nobleman?) was often around when she was growing up and did his best to curb the worst of her hoydenish tendencies and teach her the importance of proper behaviour. When she’s sixteen, he becomes suddenly, uncomfortably aware that she is now a young woman and, realising his feelings for her go deeper than friendship, is rather cool and aloof towards her, which upsets her and makes her wonder what she’s done wrong. Sorin is horrified at the idea of lusting after his friend’s cousin, so he decides to keep as far away from her as possible and leaves England to travel abroad. Returning after an absence of five years, he is somewhat dismayed to discover that his attraction to Eleanor hasn’t abated – if anything it’s stronger – but he is determined not to act upon it (even though there is absolutely nothing preventing him from doing so) because he thinks he’ll crush her spirit if he marries her and because he thinks considering her in an amorous light is a betrayal of Charles’ trust.

Eleanor was upset by Sorin’s coldness but they have repaired their friendship and been regular correspondents during his five year absence. When he returns, she is overjoyed to see him and hopes things will return to the way they were, but when her flighty friend, Caroline, sets her cap at Sorin, Eleanor finds herself unaccountably jealous, and, in spite of her avowal to remain unmarried, slowly comes to realise that perhaps there could be something else between them, something more than friendship.

That’s the story in a nutshell, but almost the entire first half is taken up with Sorin being determined not to let Eleanor know how he feels and Eleanor thinking about how very poorly she must compare to his former fiancée (who died in a riding accident a decade earlier), who was sweet and demure and perfect.  It starts very slowly and more or less stays that way; my interest wasn’t really engaged until around the 40% mark when the villain of the piece and his mother – who are cartoonish in the extreme, but oddly entertaining – made their appearances.  She’s a vulgar social climber, he’s a handsome fortune-hunter who is full of himself and unpleasant and both of them are so over the top that they injected a bit of life into an otherwise dull story.

For all his insistence that he should keep away from Eleanor because he’s too old, too staid and too cynical for her, when Sorin’s mother realises how he feels and encourages him to court Eleanor, all his misgivings go out the window and he does a complete turn-about.  He could simply ask Eleanor’s cousin Charles for her hand and take things from there, but he doesn’t want her to accept him out of a sense of obligation; he wants to give her time to come to see him as a potential husband rather than a brother.  And while he’s trying to think of ways to make that happen – and worrying she will never think of him differently – Eleanor realises she’s fallen for him, isn’t the type of woman to make him happy and is miserable at the prospect of having to watch him marry someone else.

Pretty much the entire book is taken up with Sorin thinking he might have missed his chance with Eleanor and Eleanor despairing that she never had a chance with Sorin… For two people who are supposed to know each other inside out, they’re remarkably unintuitive.

The titular scandal doesn’t come into play until close to the end (around 80% on my Kindle), and it’s of the blink-and-you’ll-miss-it variety.  It’s well thought-out, but there isn’t enough of it to sustain a 300-page book and it’s too little, too late.  It also leads to the problematic scene I mentioned earlier.  I’ll try to avoid spoilers, but in the book’s only love scene, things become heated between the couple while Eleanor is under the influence of a drug (that wasn’t given to her by Sorin, I hasten to add). They don’t have sex, but there’s kissing (for the first time) and he does bring her to climax.  She doesn’t stop him, and he beats himself up about it afterwards but still… at best, it’s unsexy and unromantic, and at worst dubious consent – and either way, I didn’t like it and it has knocked my final grade down even further.

Scandal of the Season is the first book by Liana LeFay I’ve read and I’m afraid it hasn’t inspired me to seek out any more of her work.  The storyline is unoriginal and the characters are bland and inconsistent.  Eleanor’s friend Caroline is a man-trapping-gold-digger one minute and remorseful and mindful of her reputation the next.  Eleanor is determined never to marry, then – whoops!  No she isn’t because she’s realised Sorin is hot and that she wants to marry him.  Sorin must keep away from Eleanor because she needs someone younger and more exciting –but then his mum says he should marry her and suddenly all his qualms about courting her disappear.

It’s a sad fact that the villainous Yarborough and his unrefined mama are the most memorable characters in the book – they’re two dimensional and nasty (he just needs a cape and a moustache to twirl!) but they at least made an impression.  Sorin and Eleanor have zero chemistry, and I very quickly tired of their constant navel gazing and the whole “I am not worthy” thing they had going on.  The book is fairly well written and parts of it are quite readable, although the author is another one who has no idea of the correct usage of English titles (Yarborough is constantly and incorrectly addressed as “Sir Yarborough” instead of “Sir Douglas” – it’s ALWAYS “Sir Firstname” and NEVER “Sir Lastname”).

Ultimately, Scandal of the Season is scandalously dull and I can’t recommend it.

Lord of Chance (Rogues to Riches #1) by Erica Ridley (audiobook) – Narrated by Marian Hussey

This title is available to download from Audible via Amazon.

Disguised as a country miss, Charlotte Devon flees London, desperate to leave her tattered reputation behind. In Scotland, her estranged father’s noble blood will finally make her a respectable debutante. Except she finds herself accidentally wed to a devil-may-care rogue with a sinful smile. He’s the last thing she needs…and everything her traitorous heart desires.

Charming rake Anthony Fairfax is on holiday to seek his fortune…and escape his creditors. When an irresistible Lady Luck wins him in a game of chance – and a slight mishap has them leg-shackled by dawn – the tables have finally turned in his favor. But when past demons catch up to them, holding on to new love will mean destroying their dreams forever.

Rating: Narration – B; Content – C+

In Lord of Chance, the first in Erica Ridley’s new Rogues to Riches series, we are introduced to the handsome, charming Anthony Fairfax, a somewhat rackety young man who supports himself and his family by means of an inveterate gambling habit. Ms. Ridley has already released a number of her books in audio format (her Dukes of War series, narrated by Stevie Zimmermann) but this is the first I’ve listened to and I have to say that the result is a mixed bag. The narration by Marian Hussey is good, but while Ms. Ridley has a deft touch with the humour and dialogue, and she does briefly touch on a couple of darker themes, the story is a little too fluffy for my taste.

In order to escape pressing debts, Anthony Fairfax has left London to try his fortunes elsewhere. He is currently at a small inn on the Scottish border and things are looking up. On this particular night, it seems he cannot lose, and he can’t help but attribute this to the mysterious, cloaked woman he has nicknamed “Lady Fortune”, who is sitting quietly on the other side of the room. But when Lady Fortune is encouraged to join the card game, it seems she makes her own luck, because she cleans Anthony out completely and wins everything on the table.

You can read the rest of this review at AudioGals.

The Girl Who Knew Too Much by Amanda Quick (audiobook) – Narrated by Louisa Jane Underwood

This title may be downloaded from Audible via Amazon

At the exclusive Burning Cove Hotel on the coast of California, rookie reporter Irene Glasson finds herself staring down at a beautiful actress at the bottom of a pool. The dead woman had a red-hot secret about an up-and-coming leading man, a scoop that Irene couldn’t resist. Seeking the truth about the drowning, Irene finds herself drawn to a master of deception.

Once a world-famous magician whose career was mysteriously cut short, Oliver Ward is now the owner of the hotel. He can’t let scandal threaten his livelihood, even if it means trusting Irene, a woman who seems to have appeared in Los Angeles out of nowhere four months ago. With Oliver’s help Irene soon learns that the glamorous paradise of Burning Cove hides dark and dangerous secrets. And that the past – always just out of sight – could drag them both under.

Rating: Narration – C-; Content – D+

Anyone who has read or listened to even a small number of Amanda Quick’s historical mysteries will have realised that her books tend to be somewhat formulaic. I’m not saying that’s necessarily a bad thing; Ms. Quick’s particular formula – independent heroine meets mysterious, slightly dangerous hero and they solve a mystery while falling in love (and have their first sexual encounter anywhere else but a bed!) – is a popular and successful one, and I have no problem with formulaic when it’s done well. I wanted to listen to The Girl Who Knew Too Much mostly because the setting of 1930s Los Angeles is a departure from the author’s usual setting of 19th Century England, and being a bit of an old movie buff, I was looking forward to a noir-ish mystery with a touch of good old Hollywood glamour. Sadly, however both the noir and the glamour were missing and the mysteries – there are two of them – were very predictable.

Adding to my disappointment was the narration by Louisa Jane Underwood, which did nothing to help an already lacklustre book and in fact, made listening to it a chore rather than a pleasure. Had I not been listening for review, I’d have DNFed and returned it to Audible.

You can read the rest of this review at AudioGals.