Echo Moon (Ghost Gifts #3) by Laura Spinella

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A past life, a past war, and a past love. Peter St John can’t foresee a future until he confronts his past sins.

When photojournalist Peter St John returns home after a two-year absence, the life he’s been running from catches up. For years his mother’s presence, coupled with Pete’s own psychic gift, has triggered visits to 1917. There, he relives battles of the Great War, captures the heyday of Coney Island on canvas, and falls in love with an enchanting and enigmatic songstress named Esme. Present-day Pete still pines for Esme, and his love endures…but so does his vivid memory of killing her.

When he discovers family heirlooms that serve as proof of his crimes, Pete will have to finally confront his former life. He also meets a young woman—who is more than what she seems—with a curious connection to his family. As century-old secrets unravel, can Pete reconcile a murder from his past before it destroys his future?

Rating: B+

The first two books in Laura Spinella’s Ghost Gifts trilogy of paranormal mysteries introduces readers to Aubrey Ellis, a woman who has been able to communicate with the dead since she was a child.  These novels centre around Aubrey and her husband, a hard-nosed investigative reporter, but in Echo Moon, the final book in the set, the focus shifts to Aubrey and Levi’s son, Pete, a talented photojournalist who spends his life reporting from some of the world’s most dangerous places.  It’s an intriguing story that, after a slow start, becomes a compelling one, as the author skilfully weaves together two interconnected stories – one, the story of a young singer in the early part of the twentieth century, and the other concerning Pete’s search for the truth about a shattering event that took place shortly after the end of the First World War.

Aubrey Ellis’ psychic gifts – or her curse – have been passed to her son, who has, for as long as he can remember, been aware that he has lived a past life.  He has memories and/or visions of events from the early part of the last century and remembers fighting, and then documenting events as a war photographer, in World War One.  Pete also lives with a massive burden of guilt, knowing that he killed the woman he loved – whom he knows only as Esme – in that past life, and that weight is so heavy that it often threatens to consume him utterly.  The images of war that haunt him day after day and night after night are so disturbing that he can’t bear the idea of spending more time with his memories and trying to find out the truth about Esme; and the violent outbursts that inevitably follow his visions make him even more determined to leave his past in the past.  Being around his mother seems to intensify his ‘gift’ and increase the number and vividness of his recollections; and when Echo Moon opens, Pete has just returned home after two years spent embedded with troops in the Middle-East and other war-torn places. He spends his life searching for numbness by way of twenty-first century wars, running from his past life by throwing himself into untold dangers in this one.

Aubrey is naturally concerned for her son, and can see the toll his way of life is taking on him.  She knows he is haunted by the belief he was a murderer in his past life, and wants him to seek help in the form of regression therapy, but Pete is dead set against it.  But when, for the first time ever, he feels Esme’s spirit reaching for him in his present life, he starts to realise that something is changing, as his past and present lives have never intersected before.  When he offers to go to Long Island to check out a property that Aubrey has recently inherited from her grandmother, Pete is staggered to discover yet more connections between his family and his past life.

With the help of Ailish Montague – a young actress who is the niece of Zeke Dublin (an important character in the previous book, Foretold) – Pete begins to make connections between seemingly random objects he finds in the house, his previous life and Esme – but it’s not until he is brought to the stark reality that he stands to lose those most dear to him if he continues to avoid facing up to the past that he finally decides it’s time to stop running and start putting the pieces together.  Only once he’s done that will he be free to live his own life, free from his horrific memories and the burden of guilt.

Laura Spinella pulls her disparate storylines together very cleverly and together, they make for a captivating read.  Sections set in 1917 follow Esme as she falls in love with Phin Seaborn, a young artist and photographer, while those set in the present follow Pete’s discoveries as his past life is gradually revealed and its connections to his present one prove to be stronger than he could ever have imagined.  The author does a great job in depicting the difficult family dynamics in the Ellis/St. John household; both Aubrey and Levi are desperately worried about Pete and don’t quite know how to help him, while Pete is distancing himself from the parents he loves, knowing he’s hurting them but with no idea what to do for the best.

My one criticism – which may well be more to do with me than with the book – is that I found it a little difficult to get into at first, and wondered if not having read the previous novels had placed me at something of a disadvantage.  Fortunately, Ms. Spinella’s writing is confident and engaging; she brings the past vividly to life and creates satisfying emotional connections between her principal characters, so it didn’t take long for me to become invested, and I’m happy to say that Echo Moon works fairly well as a standalone, so potential readers needn’t worry about picking it up on its own.  In fact, I enjoyed its terrific blend of mystery, suspense and paranormal (with a bit of historical fiction and romance thrown in for good measure), so much that I intend to go back to read the other books in the series.

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The English Wife by Lauren Willig (audiobook) – Narrated by Barrie Kreinik


This title may be downloaded from Audible via Amazon

Annabelle and Bayard Van Duyvil live a charmed life in New York: He’s the scion of an old Knickerbocker family, she grew up in a Tudor house in England, they had a fairy-tale romance in London, they have three-year-old twins on whom they dote, and he’s recreated her family home on the banks of the Hudson and named it Illyria. Yes, there are rumors that she’s having an affair with the architect, but rumors are rumors, and people will gossip. But then Bayard is found dead with a knife in his chest on the night of their Twelfth Night Ball; Annabelle goes missing, presumed drowned; and the papers go mad.

Bay’s sister, Janie, forms an unlikely alliance with a reporter to try to uncover the truth, convinced that Bay would never have killed his wife, that it must be a third party, but the more she learns about her brother and his wife, the more everything she thought she knew about them starts to unravel. Who were her brother and his wife, really? And why did her brother die with the name George on his lips?

Rating: Narration – A+: Content – B+

I’ve read and/or listened to a number of the books in Lauren Willig’s Pink Carnation series, but for some reason haven’t yet read or listened to anything she’s written since. Nothing against the author – it’s my fault for having so little time to partake of books I’m not reviewing! – but the buzz about her latest novel, The English Wife, and good reports of it from friends whose opinions I trust, made me determined to experience it in one format or another, so I was pleased when I saw it would be coming out in audio and that Barrie Kreinik was on board as narrator. I’ve only listened to her once or twice before, but I remember being impressed with the quality of her performance in general and her English accent in particular, so that was a win-win.

The book opens on the night of the Twelfth Night ball being given by Annabelle and Bayard van Duyvil, in January 1899. The van Duyvils are a golden couple, he the scion of an old Knickerbocker family, she a daughter of the English aristocracy, and they seem to have everything – good looks, a pair of lovely children (twins), wealth and social position. But secrets lurk beneath the surface; rumours abound about the close relationship between Bay and his cousin Anne, and there is much gossip about affair rumoured to be going on between Annabelle and David Pruyn, the architect who has spent the last eighteen months overseeing the work on the van Duyvil’s new house, a grand reproduction of Annabelle’s stately home in England.

You can read the rest of this review at AudioGals.

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.

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

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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.

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

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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.