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

The Daughter of Sherlock Holmes by Leonard Goldberg (audiobook) – Narrated by Steve West

This title may be downloaded from Audible.

1910. Joanna Blalock unknowingly is the product of a sole assignation between the late Sherlock Holmes and Irene Adler. After the nurse and her ten-year-old son see a man fall to his death in an apparent suicide, elderly Dr. John Watson and his charming handsome son Dr. John Watson Jr. invite her to join their detective team. From hidden treasure to the Second Afghan War of 1878-1880, the group devise an ingenious plan to catch a murderer in the act while dodging Scotland Yard the British aristocracy.

Rating: Narration – B+ Content – C-

I’ll confess straight off that I’m not what I’d call a Sherlock Holmes “aficionado”. I’ve read some of the books and stories, and have enjoyed his various celluloid iterations, from Basil Rathbone and Peter Cushing to Jeremy Brett and Benedict Cumberbatch, and Sherry Thomas’ re-imagining of Sherlock as Charlotte in A Study in Scarlet Women was one of my favourite books and audiobooks of last year. But I can’t quote chunks of text or even remember all the plots of the stories I’ve read, so I’m most definitely not a card-carrying member of the Sherlock Fan Club.

But I was definitely up for the idea of a story featuring The Daughter of Sherlock Holmes, although now I’ve finished it, I can’t say if it’s the sort of book that will appeal to diehard Sherlockians or to the relatively uninitiated. Speaking as a member of the latter group, I’m not sure whether the style adopted by author Leonard Goldberg is akin to Conan Doyle’s or if it was his intention for the entire book to seem like averagely-written Sherlock Holmes fanfiction. Reviews of the book on Goodreads certainly indicate that those more familiar with Conan Doyle’s work appreciated the writing in this, but I found it plodding and unimaginative.

You can read the rest of this review at AudioGals.

Spectred Isle (Green Men #1) by K.J. Charles

This title may be purchased from Amazon.

Archaeologist Saul Lazenby has been all but unemployable since his disgrace during the War. Now he scrapes a living working for a rich eccentric who believes in magic. Saul knows it’s a lot of nonsense…except that he begins to find himself in increasingly strange and frightening situations. And at every turn he runs into the sardonic, mysterious Randolph Glyde.

Randolph is the last of an ancient line of arcanists, commanding deep secrets and extraordinary powers as he struggles to fulfil his family duties in a war-torn world. He knows there’s something odd going on with the haunted-looking man who keeps turning up in all the wrong places. The only question for Randolph is whether Saul is victim or villain.

Saul hasn’t trusted anyone in a long time. But as the supernatural threat grows, along with the desire between them, he’ll need to believe in evasive, enraging, devastatingly attractive Randolph. Because he may be the only man who can save Saul’s life—or his soul.

Rating: A

K.J. Charles gets her new Green Men series of paranormal historical romances off to a terrific start with Spectred Isle, an utterly captivating mix of adventure, mystery and romance all bound up in old English folklore, myth and magic.

Randolph Glyde is the last member of an old English family whose lineage goes back centuries.  Throughout the ages, the Glydes have been charged by successive monarchs with the protection of England from supernatural entities. Known as the Green Men, theirs is an ancient duty and an ancient magic that borrows powers from the land, but now their numbers are severely depleted and England is vulnerable to attack from mystical forces.  The First World War and the concurrent occult War Beneath devastated many families and the Glydes were no exception, as the government, not content with conventional weapons – tanks, guns and bombs –  recruited as many occultists and arcanists as they could and set them to unleashing their very specialised form of warfare on the enemy.  Of course, the other side had the same idea, and the resulting war irrevocably damaged the veil between the world of the supernatural and the human world; it now lies in shreds and Randolph – whose entire family was wiped out in one devastating engagement – is one of the few left alive who is able to track down and repel the various creatures and malignant entities that are passing through the veil with increasing frequency.

Saul Lazenby is an Oxford educated archaeologist who was stationed in Mesapotamia (modern Iraq) during the war, but who was dishonourably discharged and has struggled in the years since to find employment owing to his deeply tarnished record and reputation.  He is grateful for his position as assistant to Major Peabody, an eccentric who believes London to be a hotbed of magical powers, and whom Saul privately thinks is a harmless crackpot. Still, working for him is better than starving in the streets, and Saul obediently sets out to investigate the Major’s latest theory concerning an ancient burial stone located in Oak Hill Park just north of London.  Before he can locate it, however, an old oak tree bursts into flame for no apparent reason – and Saul finds himself being abruptly interrogated by a rude, disdainful and obviously aristocratic man who – just as abruptly – disappears when a few more people arrive on the scene.

This is only the first of several seemingly accidental meetings between the two men, in which they view each other with hostility and suspicion.  Saul thinks Randolph is following him; Randolph wonders if Saul’s appearances at the sites of exploding trees, ghostly manifestations and other strange happenings means he is somehow connected to or even responsible for them.

But soon, Randolph has to admit that perhaps there is a method in this madness and that Saul has some, as yet unknown, part to play in England’s defence against attack from beyond the veil. Through Saul’s PoV, the reader is initiated into Randolph’s magical world as the pair are drawn into the investigation of supernatural occurrences that appear to be somehow related to the life – and death – of Geoffrey de Mandeville, a villainous, twelfth century nobleman.

K.J. Charles does a wonderful job of building a sense of expectation, menace and urgency throughout the early parts of the novel and beyond, gradually broadening out her focus into an intricately plotted story that weaves a magical spell of its own on the reader.  The world-building is absolutely fantastic and the characterisation – of secondary characters as well as the two principals – is superbly rich and detailed.  The magic in this story is brilliantly conceived and it’s obvious that a considerable amount of research has gone into creating the specifics of this pagan-Earth magic. It’s not simple and it’s not at all benign; it’s dangerous and malevolent and devious, and those who fight it have to experience pain and sacrifice in order to become worthy of that task.

The romance between Saul and Randolph is beautifully developed as these two men, both of them lonely and haunted, draw closer and fall in love.  Moving from suspicion and scepticism to a tentative truce, friendship and more, the relationship develops very naturally and never feels rushed or forced.  I really felt for Saul and what he’d been through; his desire for love and affection cost him very dear, but he carries doggedly on, bearing his scars quietly and refusing to let his past define him.  And while Randolph seems, at first to be an overbearing, arrogant git, it soon becomes clear he’s nothing of the sort.  Well, he’s arrogant, yes, but he’s also rather charming underneath the bluster, possessed of a very dry wit and completely dedicated to the tasks with which he’s been invested.  I loved watching them as they readjusted their opinions of each other and recognised that here, at last, was someone with whom they could let down their guards and be themselves.  The chemistry between them is scorching and the love scenes are extremely sexy, but there’s no doubt that they also possess a strong emotional connection and are deeply attached to one another.

While the storyline featuring Randolph and Saul is wrapped up by the end of the book, I’m hoping we’ll see more of them as the series progresses and they continue the fight to keep England safe from whatever is trying to get through from the other side.  Sceptred Isle is funny, clever, sexy and spooky (seriously – the bit where our heroes are stuck on the road gave me the willies!) and I couldn’t put it down.  It’s an out-and-out corker of a tale and is very highly recommended.

The Secret Casebook of Simon Feximal by K.J. Charles


This title may be purchased from Amazon

A story too secret, too terrifying—and too shockingly intimate—for Victorian eyes.

A note to the Editor

Dear Henry,

I have been Simon Feximal’s companion, assistant and chronicler for twenty years now, and during that time my Casebooks of Feximal the Ghost-Hunter have spread the reputation of this most accomplished of ghost-hunters far and wide.

You have asked me often for the tale of our first meeting, and how my association with Feximal came about. I have always declined, because it is a story too private to be truthfully recounted, and a memory too precious to be falsified. But none knows better than I that stories must be told.

So here is it, Henry, a full and accurate account of how I met Simon Feximal, which I shall leave with my solicitor to pass to you after my death.

I dare say it may not be quite what you expect.

Robert Caldwell
September 1914

Rating: B+

As often happens, I’m doing things the wrong way around, because I’m finally reading this AFTER I’ve read Spectred Isle, which isn’t really a sequel, but which is set in the same world as the Simon Feximal stories. But better late than never.

The Casebook of Simon Feximal is a set of short stories featuring the eponymous “ghost hunter” and the man who becomes his long-term partner, both professionally and personally, Robert Caldwell. K.J. Charles has penned a set of extremely imaginative and, in many cases (I’ll never look at a butterfly the same way again!), downright scary stories that span a period of over twenty years during which Simon is summoned to deal with any number of hauntings, evil manifestations and things do a fair bit more than go “bump” in the night. When the pair first meet, Robert is making his living as a journalist and has employed Simon to exorcise the spirits that are causing the walls to bleed in the house he has just inherited. Simon sees his role as setting the ghosts free by allowing them to tell their stories rather than simply banishing them back to wherever they came from, and in this particular case, the story involves a promiscuous relative who appears to have expired coitus interruptus and who wants to complete his final sexual encounter 😉 Yes, I’m going to make the joke – K.J. Charles really knows how to start a book with a bang!

*ahem*

While these are all short stories, there are some plotlines that run through more than one story, like the machinations of the horrible Dr. Berry, the Machiavellian Mr. Parker and the mysterious Fat Man. I also loved the nods to the literary creations of other authors of mystery and suspense, especially Karswell, from M.R. James’ Casting the Runes (which, as Night of the Demon, is one of my favourite old horror movies!).

The ending is incredibly poignant and brought tears to my eyes – and by sheer coincidence, I happen to be staying something like twenty miles from Ypres, where the commemoration of the 100th anniversary of the Battle of Passchendaele on 30 and 31 July 1917 is taking place as I write. In one of life’s odd coincidences, I had no idea that Robert’s final letter would be from Passchendaele in 1917 and it added an extra note of sadness as I closed the book.

This is a great collection of stories that can be dipped into (although I’d advise reading in order) – but I defy anyone to be able to stop reading once they’ve started. The relationship between Simon and Robert begins quickly but over the years they develop a beautiful, intense connection which is largely unspoken – but their bond is so strong that it really doesn’t need words.

If you’re a fan of paranormal romances, I don’t see how you can go wrong with this one.

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.

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.

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.