In Celebration of June Is Audiobook Month

To mark June is Audiobook Month, I and my fellow AudioGals have been choosing some of our favourite audiobooks in our favourite genres, and this week it was my turn to choose my Top Five Historical Romance audios. Which wasn’t easy. Last week saw Kaetrin picking her Top Five Contemporary Romances, and the week before that, BJ chose her Top Five Urban Fantasy/Paranormal listens. There’s still time to enter the giveaway for earbuds and downloads – head over to AudioGals and scroll down to the bottom of this week’s post for details.

In the meantime… my Top Five.

I might as well say this right now. I am utterly HOPELESS at choosing favourites. The minute anyone says to me “what’s your favourite (something)?” my mind goes completely blank and I struggle to think of ANYthing, let alone the ones I’d rate above all others. Then after the initial panic has subsided, I can think of too many. But because, when it comes to audiobooks, I’m someone who always places the narrator ahead of the author in terms of importance when it comes to choosing the ones I want to listen to (sorry, authors!), choosing five audiobooks I think would be a good introduction to historical romance in audio for someone who wants to take the plunge but doesn’t know where to start didn’t prove too difficult. My choices are therefore selected by narrator first; and as such, feature my “Fab Four” – four narrators I would quite happily listen to if they were reading the phone book.

You can read the rest of my list at AudioGals.

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Lost Among the Living by Simone St. James

Lost Among the Living

This title may be purchased from Amazon

England, 1921. Three years after her husband, Alex, disappeared, shot down over Germany, Jo Manders still mourns his loss. Working as a paid companion to Alex’s wealthy, condescending aunt, Dottie Forsyth, Jo travels to the family’s estate in the Sussex countryside. But there is much she never knew about her husband’s origins…and the revelation of a mysterious death in the Forsyths’ past is just the beginning…

All is not well at Wych Elm House. Dottie’s husband is distant, and her son was grievously injured in the war. Footsteps follow Jo down empty halls, and items in her bedroom are eerily rearranged. The locals say the family is cursed, and that a ghost in the woods has never rested. And when Jo discovers her husband’s darkest secrets, she wonders if she ever really knew him. Isolated in a place of deception and grief, she must find the truth or lose herself forever.

And then a familiar stranger arrives at Wych Elm House…

Rating: B

Simone St. James may only have five published novels to her name (so far) but I was so taken with her very first book – The Haunting of Maddy Clare – that she pretty much immediately became an auto-buy author. In recent years, she has brilliantly revitalised the historical/gothic mystery, producing superbly-written, well-crafted and spine-tingling stories that have often kept me reading until well past my bedtime!

Lost Among the Living is set in 1921 and as the book opens, we meet Jo Manders, a young widow whose husband, Alex, was a pilot in the Royal Flying Corps. His plane was shot down in 1918, but his body was never found, meaning that Jo is not officially a widow and is therefore unable to claim a widow’s pension. With no other means of supporting herself and her mother – who is mentally ill and lives in an asylum – Jo has found employment as companion to Alex’s wealthy, aristocratic aunt, Dottie Forsyth. Dottie is opinionated, demanding and often rude, so working for her is no picnic, but she is also Jo’s one last link to Alex, so Jo sticks it out.

Jo’s assignment with Dottie was only supposed to last for the few months Dottie spent touring the Continent buying art from people and families driven to financial ruin by the war, so she is surprised when Dottie asks her to accompany her back to England. On arriving at Wych Elm House, however, Jo begins to question her decision. The house is a desolate place that is permeated by an atmosphere of grief and loss; the local villagers whisper about mysterious deaths that happened before the war and vicious ghosts roaming the woods; Dottie’s husband is a coldly calculating, raffish womaniser, their son, Martin, has returned from the war an invalid who seems headed for an early demise, and their daughter, Frances, died in mysterious circumstances. But the more Jo learns about that past tragedy, the more determined she is to discover the truth behind it, refusing to be intimidated by the footsteps that follow her or by the stories that circulate about a mysterious beast roaming the woods.

And on top of all this comes Jo’s dawning realisation about how little she knew about the man she married; she hadn’t known that Wych Elm House had been Alex’s home or that he had grown up with Dottie’s children… and certainly hadn’t known he visited the house on his last leave before he was shot down.

Lost Among the Living is a great blend of ghost story, mystery and romance, and the writing is superb. Ms St. James is a master at creating an atmosphere of menace and uncertainty, and her descriptive prose is often beautiful:

To my right and left, the roof of Wych Elm House fell away, as if I were the mermaid on the prow of a ship, sailing into the woods. Before me spread the tops of the trees, the closest ones visibly rippling and shimmering in the wind, the father ones mere ribbons of black and pewter and dusky silver, blending into a mass that spread for miles.

But while I enjoyed the book overall, there are a couple of things about it that didn’t work for me, and which prevented my rating it more highly. First of all, there is a massive spoiler in the publisher’s blurb which kind of skewed my reading of it. It’s difficult to describe without giving too much away, but the blurb says this: And then a familiar stranger arrives at Wych Elm House. I was 99.9% certain I knew who this person was going to be, and as a consequence, I got frustrated when he failed to appear until around the final third of the book. Would I have read the book differently had I not read that spoiler? It’s difficult to say, but there are enough pointers towards this event in the book itself to have made it likely that I wouldn’t. My other big issue with the story was the rapidity with which Jo accepted the presence of the ghost and knew immediately who it was. To me, it felt as though the author was taking a bit of a short-cut; readers know what to expect from her books, they will be quick to accept the presence of a ghost and so Jo accepts it quickly, too.

But even with those reservations, Lost Among the Living is an intriguing and beautifully-written story in which the tension leaps off the page and the characters are complex and interesting. It isn’t my favourite of Ms. St. James’ books (that would be The Other Side of Midnight), but it’s certainly well worth reading if you enjoy mysteries and ghost stories with a touch of romance.

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A Very Belated Best Of 2015

read all dayAlmost six weeks into 2016, and I haven’t been able to get around to writing up a post about my favourite reads and listens of 2015. I’ve written one each for All About Romance, Romantic Historical Reviews and AudioGals (running soon), and of course for each one, I could have chosen different titles or more titles… I had a good year last year when it came to books and audiobooks which made choosing the ones I enjoyed the most a difficult task.

I’m only including those books for which reviews appeared in 2015, as in most cases, I don’t put them here until they’ve appeared at the outlet for which they were initially written. This means that some of the books and audiobooks are ones I might have read or listened to at the end of 2014; similarly, there are a few missing from the end of 2015 for which reviews didn’t appear until 2016. Confusing perhaps, but if I had to go and check the date I’d actually finished each title it would have made the job of compiling this post an even longer one and given me another reason to put it off!

From my Goodreads stats:

Of the 231 books I read and/or listened to I gave 57 of them 5 stars; 97 of them 4 stars; 52 of them 3 stars; and 16 of them 1 or 2 stars.

As Goodreads doesn’t allow half-stars and I know that a large number of my 5 star ratings are actually 4.5 stars, here’s how I work them out. At AAR, we use a letter grading system; B+/B/B- and so on, so for me, an A is automatically a 5 star book (I’ve only given one A+ so far). A- and B+ equate to 4.5 stars, but I round an A- up to five and a B+ down to 4. B- and C+ equate to 3.5 stars, but I round a B- up to 4 and a C+ down to 3 and so on.

Top Books:

– ones I’ve given 5 stars or 4.5 stars and rounded up (A+/A/A-)

Honourable Mentions:

– a few of the B+ books I enjoyed

Of Rakes and Radishes by Susanna Ives
In Bed With a Spy by Alyssa Alexander
The Soldier’s Dark Secret by Marguerite Kaye
The Duke and the Lady in Red by Lorraine Heath
The Earl’s Dilemma by Emily May
The Marriage Act by Alyssa Everett
The Chaperone’s Seduction by Sarah Mallory
The Highwayman by Kerrigan Byrne
The Lure of the Moonflower by Lauren Willig
The Soldier’s Rebel Lover by Marguerite Kaye
A Talent for Trickery by Alissa Johnson
Cold Hearted Rake by Lisa Kleypas
Daniel’s True Desire by Grace Burrowes
The Spinster’s Guide to Scandalous Behaviour by Jennifer McQuiston
Sweetest Scoundrel by Elizabeth Hoyt

Top Audiobooks:

– ones that have received 4.5/5 stars or an A/A- for narration AND at least 4 stars/B for content.  This will naturally exclude a few titles where an excellent narration hasn’t been matched by a story that was equally good, OR where a really good story hasn’t been paired with a narrator who could do it justice.

I’ve also (finally!) got around to updating my 2015 TBR Challenge post with the list of books I chose to read last year. I completed the Mount TBR Challenge at Goodreads, too, knocking 32 or 33 books off my pre-2015 TBR pile.


(There are some overlaps with the TBR Challenge, and as I’ve been compiling this post, I’ve realised I missed a few out!) But I’m back into both challenges again this year and shall attempt to update my progress more regularly than I managed in 2015.

To sum up, almost half the books I read and/or listened to last year got at least 4 stars, which I think is a pretty good strike rate considering the numbers of books put out (and the amount of dross that’s out there to wade through).  2016 is also off to a good start, so keep watching these pages (or find me at my other haunts!) to find out what’s making me happy 🙂

A 2014 Retrospective

I was going to write a “favourite books of 2014” or “best books of 2014” post or something of that nature, but then realised that I’ve written and contributed to a number of those, so I’m doing something different here.

cat_asleep_on_bookSo instead, I’m stealing an idea from the lovely Wendy the Super Librarian and have been looking through my Goodreads Stats to see how my ratings panned out across the year. Because I review a large number of new and current releases, the majority of the books I read in 2014 were published in 2014, but I managed to squeeze in a few others. And because Goodreads counts print/ebooks and audiobooks of the same title as two different books, while my total for the year was 231, it’s probably closer to 180 different books.

Looking through my stats (and if I’ve counted correctly!) the majority of my reading and listening fell within the 4/5 star bracket, which is pretty good going.

I gave 34 books and 19 audiobooks 5 stars (some will have been 4.5 stars rounded up) A/A-
I gave 63 books and 32 audiobooks 4 stars (some will have been 4.5 stars rounded down) B+/B
I gave 43 books and 15 audiobooks 3 stars (some will have been 3.5 stars rounded down) B-/C+/C
I gave 14 books and 2 audiobooks 2 stars C-/D+/D
I gave 3 books and two audiobooks 1 star (one of the books was a DNF, as was one of the audiobooks, because the narration was utterly dire.)

Putting together the list of books to which I gave a 5 star/A rating, it’s interesting to see that I’ve rated as many audio books at that level as I have printed books. Obviously, when rating an audiobook, I take the narration into account too – and if you look closely, you’ll see there are three names that crop up repeatedly as the narrators on those audiobooks; Nicholas Boulton, Rosalyn Landor and Kate Reading, who are, quite simply, three of the best narrators around when it comes to historical romance. In many cases, these are audiobooks where I may have rated the story at a A- or B+, but the narration is so good that the overall rating is bumped up. Of course, even the best narrator can’t make a silk purse out of a sow’s ear, so even in those audios where the story isn’t quite at the five star level, it’s not going to be a dud!

The reviews are linked to the titles below the images.

5 star books:

 


Only Enchanting by Mary Balogh
Rogue Spy by Joanna Bourne
Douglas: Lord of Heartache by Grace Burrowes
The Captive and The Traitor by Grace Burrowes
Prospero’s Daughter by Nancy Butler
Vixen in Velvet by Loretta Chase
At Your Pleasure by Meredith Duran
Fool Me Twice by Meredith Duran
Mr (Not Quite) Perfect by Jessica Hart
Marrying the Royal Marine by Carla Kelly
Never Judge a Lady by Her Cover by Sarah MacLean
The Suffragette Scandal by Courtney Milan
The King’s Falcon by Stella Riley
It Takes Two to Tangle by Theresa Romain
Shadow Lover by Anne Stuart
The Luckiest Lady in London by Sherry Thomas

5 star Audiobooks:


The Escape by Mary Balogh & Rosalyn Landor
The Black Hawk by Joanna Bourne & Kirsten Potter
The Forbidden Rose by Joanna Bourne & Kirsten Potter
Captives of the Night by Loretta Chase & Kate Reading
Lord of Scoundrels Loretta Chase & Kate Reading
Silk is for Seduction by Loretta Chase & Kate Reading
A Week to be Wicked by Tessa Dare & Carolyn Morris
Arabella by Georgette Heyer & Phyllida Nash
The Corinthian by Georgette Heyer & Georgina Sutton
The Unknown Ajax by Georgette Heyer & Daniel Philpott
Venetia by Georgette Heyer & Phillida Nash
The Shadow and the Star by Laura Kinsale & Nicholas Boulton
Uncertain Magic by Laura Kinsale & Nicholas Boulton
The Countess Conspiracy by Courtney Milan & Rosalyn Landor
The Suffragette Scandal by Courtney Milan & Rosalyn Landor
It Takes Two to Tangle by Theresa Romain & Michelle Ford
Silence for the Dead by Simone St. James & Mary Jane Wells
His at Night by Sherry Thomas & Kate Reading<
The Mask of the Midnight Manzanilla by Lauren Willig & Kate Reading

Honourable Mentions:

– go to books and audios I’ve rated at 4.5 stars/A-/B+, but which I’ve rounded up to five because while there might have been something that niggled at me, it was a damn good book and felt closer to 5 stars than 4. Or just a book that, despite a few flaws, I really enjoyed.


The Boleyn Reckoning by Laura Andersen
The Laird by Grace Burrowes
The MacGregor’s Lady by Grace Burrowes & Roger Hampton
Scandal Wears Satin by Loretta Chase & Kate Reading
Firelight by Kristen Callihan & Moira Quirk
When the Duke Was Wicked by Lorraine Heath
The Leopard Prince by Elizabeth Hoyt
A Grave Matter by Anna Lee Huber
Three Weeks with Lady X by Eloisa James
Strangers at the Altar by Marguerite Kaye
Sweet Disorder by Rose Lerner
It Takes a Scandal by Caroline Linden
Till We Next Meet by Karen Ranney
Night of a Thousand Stars by Deanna Raybourn
The Devil’s Waltz by Anne Stuart
The Perilous Sea by Sherry Thomas

I think it’s fair to say I had a pretty good year, reading-wise, with a high proportion of books I’d describe as good or better, and not too many “meh” or dire ones. (Although where would we be without the odd turkey to snark about?)

The first crop of 2015 releases looks promising; I’m taking part in a few challenges next year as well, which I’ll post about soon so I can keep track and I’m looking forward to my next year of reading, listening and reviewing.

How did you do last year?

Silence for the Dead by Simone St. James (audiobook) – narrated by Mary Jane Wells

silencedead

In 1919, Kitty Weekes, pretty, resourceful, and on the run, falsifies her background to obtain a nursing position at Portis House, a remote hospital for soldiers left shell-shocked by the horrors of the Great War. Hiding the shame of their mental instability in what was once a magnificent private estate, the patients suffer from nervous attacks and tormenting dreams. But something more is going on at Portis House—its plaster is crumbling, its plumbing makes eerie noises, and strange breaths of cold waft through the empty rooms. It’s known that the former occupants left abruptly, but where did they go? And why do the patients all seem to share the same nightmare, one so horrific that they dare not speak of it?

Kitty finds a dangerous ally in Jack Yates, an inmate who may be a war hero, a madman… or maybe both. But even as Kitty and Jack create a secret, intimate alliance to uncover the truth, disturbing revelations suggest the presence of powerful spectral forces. And when a medical catastrophe leaves them even more isolated, they must battle the menace on their own, caught in the heart of a mystery that could destroy them both.

Rating: Narration: A, Content:A-

Simone St. James seems to be almost single-handedly revitalising the genre of the gothic historical romance, and her latest book, Silence for the Dead proved to be a very enjoyable example indeed.

It’s 1919, and twenty-year-old Kitty Weeks has been running away from her abusive father for the past four years. That means going from job to job, often under assumed names, and never staying in one place too long. She’s gutsy and independent, and even though she can never completely shake them off, she refuses to allow her past experiences to beat her down. Her latest position, in the wilds of the north of England, is as a nurse at Portis House, an imposing mansion-turned-asylum for men suffering from shell-shock. She’s not a nurse, of course, but she needs the job and wants to be somewhere she’ll be difficult to find. With falsified references of her previous experience at a London hospital, Kitty blags her way in.

The work is arduous and the days are long, as the place is terribly understaffed, but Kitty soon gets into the swing of things. Her lack of real nursing qualifications does not hinder her, and she quickly strikes up friendships with two of her fellow nurses, Martha and Nina. They gossip together and moan about sore feet and matron’s edicts. I really enjoyed the dynamics of their relationship.

An element of mystery is introduced when Kitty hears about the enigmatic “Patient Sixteen,” who never comes out of his room and whom, she discovers, one has to have special clearance to visit. Being one to take the opportunity to flout the rules, Kitty manages to meet him – and is astonished by what she discovers.

The author gradually builds a sense of menace. We hear about strange noises, the patients’ nightmares, and ghostly apparitions. There is clearly some sort of corruption going on which involves the visiting doctors and the house’s owner. There are also questions surrounding the treatment (or rather, non-treatment) of the patients at Portis House and speculation as to why the previous owners disappeared so suddenly. Bumps in the night, a patient who shouldn’t be there, possible conspiracies… Ms. St. James develops and intertwines her plot threads very cleverly, and I was utterly engrossed in the story from start to finish.

Speaking as someone who has a particular interest in the history of First World War, I found the setting (a mental institution for soldiers suffering from shell-shock) to be the novel’s true strength. Ms St. James has clearly done her homework on the way these men were viewed, treated, and so badly misunderstood: returned from one horror only to be plunged into another. Removed from family and friends and branded insane, they were locked away like criminals. All of them are well-rounded, engaging characters, and she skillfully evokes sympathy for their situations.

The writing and pacing of the story are excellent. The action begins very slowly in the sense that the supernatural element is not introduced until we’re well into the book, but I was so caught up in the relationships between Kitty and the other nurses, the stories of the various patients, and speculating as to the identity of “Patient Sixteen” that I never had that feeling of wanting things to get moving. I was happy to savour it all. I loved that the author takes her time establishing her characters and setting. I found her exploration of the way in which the men at Portis House were treated to be both informative and poignant. Ms. St. James has created such a fascinating set of characters and backstories, and established so well the conflicts between them, that the ‘gothic’ element was almost surplus to requirements! I would have been quite happy had the story been a straight mystery.

I’ve read a few reviews stating that the story seemed to lose impetus in the second half, but I disagree. I found myself just as riveted by the later part of the story as the beginning, which is in no small part due to the superb performance given by Mary Jane Wells. Ms Wells is a new-to-me narrator, but she has guaranteed herself a place on my “narrators to trust” list based on this performance alone.

Ms Wells’ narration is well-paced and the character voices are sufficiently distinct in tone that there was never any question as to whether I was listening to speech or description. She has a pleasant, youthful-sounding voice, used to very good effect in her interpretation of Kitty, the chipper, cockney heroine. Dedicated, optimistic Martha is given a perfectly executed Scottish accent, and laconic, wry Nina has a lower-pitched, northern-accented drawl which suited her sardonic nature very well indeed. The male patients and orderlies are all clearly differentiated, too. Paulus, the head orderly, is South African, and Ms. Wells’ accent is (mostly) spot on. Captain Mabry is given the slightly clipped tones one would expect from an officer, and she does a superb job with Archie, who has an unusual stammer. She adopts a slightly lower pitch to portray Jack, who, like Mabry, is often quite softly-spoken. Yet she also impeccably conveys his underlying sense of authority and cheeky insouciance as the story progresses.

There are a few glaring Americanisms in the text. Closets instead of cupboards, suspenders instead of braces (believe me, the image of a man wearing what we call suspenders is not a particularly attractive or masculine one!) and an odd pronunciation of Passchendaele stuck out like sore thumbs, but these were very minor irritations.

All in all, Silence for the Dead is a thoroughly enjoyable listening experience. The highlights for me are the setting and the stories and characterisation of the patients, but the principal story and narration are superb, too. I have no hesitation in recommending it very highly indeed.