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Wendy Loveridge

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The Black Madonna cover art

THE BLACK MADONNA - simply stunning!

Overall
5 out of 5 stars
Performance
5 out of 5 stars
Story
5 out of 5 stars

Reviewed: 31-07-19

The Black Madonna is a sweeping, epic tale of love, betrayal, loyalty, intrigue, and a family’s determination to support each other throughout the bloody ravages of a civil war, into which their country has been plunged.

I loved every minute of this truly sumptuous and scintillating saga of triumph over adversity – firstly in the written word, and now in more than twenty-two glorious hours of audio, performed by the highly talented actor, Alex Wyndham.

As usual with this author, her characters are quite unique. Luciano Falcieri del Santi is an Italian master-goldsmith and usurer (money lender); he has imperfectly matched shoulders and a burning ambition to find out, not only the truth, but also to punish the men who, when he was only a boy of twelve, had perjured themselves in order to have his innocent father executed for treason in England.

He has worked hard to succeed at his craft and also has a natural flair for finance, which has enabled him to persuade his uncle to loan him a large amount of money. Luciano offers The Black Madonna as surety – a simple but serenely beautiful figurine, much treasured by Luciano’s family. It is all he has to bargain with, but such is the reverence with which the figurine is held that his uncle agrees.

Luciano’s occupation as a much despised money lender, his slight, but nevertheless fairly obvious, physical deformity, and his single minded and determined quest for revenge and justice would not immediately conjure up a romantic figure. But, somehow, in her usual inimitable way, Stella Riley has created just that – an enigmatic, brilliant and quite dazzlingly beautiful young man whom Kate Maxwell, much to her own initial disgust, is secretly in thrall to from their first meeting. She is fascinated to realise that he is the epitome of a painting of Lucifer, the fallen Angel, on the ceiling of her family’s chapel. Luciano dominates the story from the first page and eventually earns the friendship and trust of Richard Maxwell, an honourable and well-respected member of Charles the first’s doomed parliament, and the father of Kate and Eden, the two eldest Maxwell siblings, who figure predominately in this story.

It’s unnecessary to go into the politics and tragedies of the English Civil Wars in great depth in the review, because this talented historian and writer has done the hard work for us to enjoy. In fact, I am in awe of the daunting task she set herself when she began researching and writing this series more than twenty five years ago… without the benefit of the internet. Suffice to say that not only The Black Madonna but every book in this series, plus its companion A Splendid Defiance and The Marigold Chain, set in the Restoration period, are all masterpieces in their own right. Many of Stella Riley’s fictitious characters throughout the series make repeat appearances – some with stories of their own – such as Gabriel Brandon, Venetia Clifford, Eden Maxwell, Francis Langley and Justin Ambrose. So well-drawn and developed are these characters that they are almost indistinguishable from the nonfictional, historical military and political characters with whom they interact. Under the author’s clever hand, these nonfictional personalities are no longer just figures on canvases in art galleries or names in dusty archived records. Seen through the eyes of the author, they are living, breathing men who had difficult decisions to make and worries to contend with.

One thing Ms. Riley does particularly well is to show both sides of the argument in a fair and unbiased way. There was one particular conversation between two friends that jumped out at me. It clearly and succinctly explained how and why families and friends found themselves on opposing sides, and highlighted the sheer futility and difficulties faced by such families and friends in this situation. Eden Maxwell and Francis Langley have been friends since boyhood and discuss their differing beliefs on Parliament versus King. Neither allows their opinions to affect their long standing friendship but simply agree to differ. Obviously, once the first war begins in earnest, they do not actively pursue their friendship, although throughout the series, they occasionally meet up and continue to be friends. The two are also inextricably linked by Eden’s marriage to Francis’s sister, Celia, which in itself has its own problems, because she, like her brother, is a royalist. The tension in the Maxwell household, as the war gathers momentum, is tangible and has long reaching consequences for all of them.

The waters are further muddied by the differing religions of political leaders, officers and soldiers fighting on both sides. Complicated and difficult it may be to understand, but the author again explains the different reasons and factions in a way that can be understood by the layman. All in all, a mix of differing religious beliefs and fears only added to the almost impossible task of uniting a country and increased the problems of an already hopeless war which tore families and communities asunder.

Luciano relentlessly pursues his quarry, finding and dealing with each culprit in turn, until only one is left. At the same time, he is fighting a losing battle against his obvious love for Kate (aka Caterina) Maxwell, until eventually he can no longer deny his feelings, even though he fears his love may place her in danger. The story hurtles towards its emotional and heart-rending culmination, an ending the author has plucked, in part, from the historic archives – the final falling of the long besieged Cavalier stronghold, Basing House – merciless, bloody and horrific- she cleverly intertwines it with the last piece of Luciano’s puzzle. In fact, the final 25% of the book, as all the threads come together, is truly nail-biting stuff. Stella Riley ratchets up the tension and emotion, drawing graphic pictures of the horrors of war to the point where one can almost smell the gunpowder and witness the horror and terror of the participants. At its centre is Luciano, his formidable Turkish man servant, Selim, his beloved Caterina, and the last man who must face Luciano’s reckoning. Here I must add that, as much as I loved reading it, the narration by master-of-his-craft, Alex Wyndham, adds another dimension to an already fabulous book which, were it a play, would certainly earn a standing ovation.

Surely The Black Madonna must be an actor’s dream to perform – for perform it Mr. Wyndham does, with quite outstanding success. I can only imagine the challenges he faced with such a huge cast of characters of both sexes. Knowing this story well, having read it at least three times, I had pre-conceived ideas on how I thought the characters would sound, and I wasn’t disappointed. Luciano’s voice is ‘like warm silk’, to quote the author, and it’s at its silkiest best when he talks to his Caterina. Luciano has a multifaceted nature, one side of which – his inherent aloneness – I felt very keenly and Mr. Wyndham portrays this facet of his character with sensitivity. Okay, Luciano deliberately cultivates it in order to stay safe, and of course as a money lender was reviled by the very people who were in debt to him, and he had learnt to trust very few people. Nevertheless, at times, I felt sad for him. He shrouds himself in an aloofness and, on occasions, adopts a quiet, deadly insolence, which is reserved for those people he holds in contempt. Alex Wyndham captures the many facets of Luciano’s character to perfection; the subtle nuances of his moods – silky smooth, deadly dangerous and insolence.

There are far too many individuals to mention separately, but a few characters really stand out for me in Alex Wyndham’s portrayal of them.

Richard Maxwell – a quiet likeable man with oodles of integrity
Eden Maxwell – a no-nonsense career soldier who begins by being quietly happy with his lot but, as a result of betrayal, becomes embittered and morose, which shows in his voice
Celia Maxwell, Eden’s wife – a querulous and waspish woman who is easy to dislike
Francis Langley – the languid, long-haired, elegantly attired, devil-may-care, Cavalier officer, who would rather read poetry than go to war
Gianetta, Luciano’s little sister – highly strung, excitable and volatile
Finally the Irish Catholic patriot, Liam Aherne – quiet and stern but with a delightful, lilting Irish accent
These are only a handful of the diverse cast Alex Wyndham juggles with.

Each time I hear this performer, I wonder anew how on earth he’ll do it, but I’m never disappointed with his performance. A consummate and professional actor with a voice like ‘warm silk’, to quote the author again in her description of Luciano, but which also fits Alex Wyndham to a tee.

The Black Madonna is another triumph for Stella Riley and her narrator, Alex Wyndham. A magnificent blend of historical fiction and historical romance, with the emphasis on the thoroughly and accurately researched history. The plotting is first rate – intriguing and plausible, and the romance is slow developing – deep and abiding.

MY VERDICT: A heart-warming and romantic saga of family, love and war. Simply not to be missed! We can only hold our breath and hope that Ms. Riley is able to have the rest of the series recorded.

Cadenza cover art

Cadenza is a feast for the senses

Overall
5 out of 5 stars
Performance
5 out of 5 stars
Story
5 out of 5 stars

Reviewed: 10-03-19

This series has been absolutely tremendous and I have loved every wonderful minute of it, especially with the velvet tones of narrator, Alex Wyndham, added into the mix.

Cadenza follows the fortunes of a talented musician - a virtuoso in fact. Julian Langham is abruptly thrust into an aristocratic world he does not want, and worse, it’s at the expense of his beloved music. He is broke and desperately unhappy when Arabella (Belle) Brandon arrives with her beautiful laugh and practical good sense to save him. She has changed places with her cousin Elizabeth (Lizzie) Marsden who has travelled in her place to take up an offer of a London season under the sponsorship of the Duke and Duchess of Rockliffe.

Obviously the cause and effect of the girls subterfuge has far reaching consequences, but they are entertaining and give the author and her narrator great scope for drama, wit and spine tingling romance.

There is a parallel, secondary romance between Lizzie and Ralph Sherbourne which is quite lovely, but my favourite of the two romances is Belle and Julian’s. I think Julian is probably the most unusual character I have ever encountered in Historical Romance and quite delightful in his complexity.

Six books down the line and the superb acting skills of Alex Wyndham have never dimmed. He has kept a grip on Rockliffe’s ‘gang’ of friends and family and effortlessly replicated the voices of each one so expertly that there is never any doubt as to which character we are listening to. With each new book in the series more characters have been added, but he is never phased and his versatility knows no bounds. A consummate actor and an eloquent writer - what more could we, their audience ask for? Bravo Ms. Riley and Mr. Wyndham.

If you have never listened to an audio book by this author/narrator combination, then my advice is to begin with The Parfit Knight. I guarantee you will want to lock yourself away until you have devoured all six books. Highly recommended.

4 of 4 people found this review helpful

Hazard cover art

Another wonderful addition to Stella Riley’s Rockliffe Georgian Series

Overall
5 out of 5 stars
Performance
5 out of 5 stars
Story
5 out of 5 stars

Reviewed: 19-07-18

In this, the fifth, in Stella Riley’s stunning Rockliffe series, we are treated to not one, but two compelling romances, with some plausible intrigue and plotting in the background. And, of course, the oh so gorgeous Rock plays his omniscient part - I would have been extremely disappointed had he not.

As is normal with this author, her characters are expertly developed into three dimensional, living, breathing and very believable characters. Brother and sister, Madeleine and Aristide Delacroix at last find love; Madeleine after a very rocky ride, much of which is as a result of her own insecurities.

Alex Wyndham as usual delivers a stunning performance, and as is normal with this author and narrator duo, are in perfect accord. I particularly enjoyed how Mr. Wyndham captures the cool aloofness of Aristide Delacroix - not an easy task when much of Aristide’s thoughts are conveyed through inner dialogue. After reading the e book I was struck in particular by how much an excellent narrator can highlight aspects which may go undetected in print. Aristide’s love interest, Genevieve, has been badly treated in an earlier relationship and Alex Wyndham captures her vulnerability to perfection.

Another winner for this twosome.

2 of 2 people found this review helpful

How to Blow It with a Billionaire cover art

More brilliant writing and an intuitive performance by the narrator

Overall
5 out of 5 stars
Performance
5 out of 5 stars
Story
5 out of 5 stars

Reviewed: 08-04-18

How can you leave it like this, Alexis Hall? And how can we possibly wait to see what life has in store for Arden and Caspian?

As the layers peel away we see more of the tormented soul of Caspian and realise that his redemption can only lie with Arden, who by the way, completely ‘gets’ him.

I love Alexis Hall’s brilliant, intelligent writing. He has me giggling and crying in turn at the slightly gouache Arden, a beautiful boy, brought up in an unconventional home but who has a deeply empathetic, non judgmental nature.

I cannot wait for the third and final instalment in this deeply moving but very dark story. Loved it Alexis Hal. And, BTW, I don’t know whether you had any input in choosing your voice actor but he’s superb.

How to Bang a Billionaire cover art

Superb writing and superb narrating

Overall
5 out of 5 stars
Performance
5 out of 5 stars
Story
5 out of 5 stars

Reviewed: 05-04-18

I think what struck me most about this story was the authors deeply empathetic understanding of human nature. Alexis Hall is fast becoming one of my auto-buy authors.

He writes with humour, wit and emotion all of which had me laughing and crying in turn. I didn’t think it possible for him to top Glitterland (which I adored) but he may well have done - I’m not sure. In any case I’ve immediately downloaded the next in this series as I cannot wait to see how the delightful Arden redeems Caspian. A beautiful love story and one I highly recommend.

1 of 1 people found this review helpful

The Marigold Chain cover art

Historical Fiction and Historical Romance combined - a rich feast of a book

Overall
5 out of 5 stars
Performance
5 out of 5 stars
Story
5 out of 5 stars

Reviewed: 21-02-18

THE MARIGOLD CHAIN was my first ever book by Stella Riley and I loved everything about it from the beginning to the end. Maybe that's why it has a rather special place in my heart. At any rate, I couldn't have been happier when I learned that the supremely talented Alex Wyndham was to record it and waited with much anticipation for its release. And oh my.... it was worth my wait!

Set in Restoration England THE MARIGOLD CHAIN maps eight months in the lives of Alex and Chloe - a couple thrown together by unusual and unorthodox circumstances.

We get so much for our money in this wonderful feast of a book. England is struggling and in debt. We have suffered terrible life losses during the plague and are at war with the Dutch and then the French join in too to add to our problems. The court of Charles II is central to the story, not only with its carefree opulence and licentious behaviour, but also for a reason I won't reveal but which reason is important to Chloe and Alex. Added to all of this there is the possibility of a traitor in our midst. Alex, along with a couple of friends, set out at the behest of Prince Rupert to unmask the person who, in all likelihood, is responsible for many unexplained, and possibly traitorous so called 'accidents'. The ensuing story is fast moving and exciting during which our young couple pass through various stages in their relationship.

The author does a wonderful job in developing her characters, not only Chloe and Alex but their mutual friends too, all of whom we come to love and care about as the story progresses.

Alex Wyndham has quite a job on his hands as he handles, with great aplomb, the sarcastic, cynical young man that is Alex Deveril. It would be easy to dislike Alex Deveril but I LOVED his complex and even loveable character, and Alex Wyndham captures him to perfection. It becomes obvious that he is reckless with his own safety for reasons he can't help. His friends understand him and the reasons for his behaviour, and for the most part, ignore his biting tongue, remembering instead the daringly brave soldier and loyal friend he had been to them for the past fifteen years. Alex Wyndham, consummate actor that he is has to deal with all of this - an Alex Deveril who does not suffer fools gladly and thinks he wants or needs no one but who then undergoes a lightbulb moment of epic proportions. A lesser actor could not have pulled off this subtle change so effectively and believably. Mr. Wyndham's tone of voice alters - it's subtle, and yet obviously still the angry young man that was - but is no longer - and one knows immediately that Alex Deveril's feelings have undergone a huge change. I was so taken by Mr. Wyndham's performance at this point that I listened to the same part a few times just to enjoy more than once and to marvel at his expertise. There are a couple of places where Alex Wyndham has to deal with Stella Riley at her wonderfully emotional best - real tear jerkers I promise, but no spoilers! All I'll say is that listeners will not be disappointed by either Stella Riley's words or Alex Wyndham's portrayal of them. Oh and he sings in a couple of places AND quotes poetry - I could go on and on...just sit back and enjoy.

I can't imagine anyone who enjoys superbly researched history, fantastic characters...fictitious and historic...a fast paced, exciting story, intertwined with a bone melting romance, not loving THE MARIGOLD CHAIN. And let's not forget the supremely talented Alex Wyndham who gives this wonderful story an extra shot of brilliance.

3 of 3 people found this review helpful

The Wicked Cousin cover art

Another worthy addition to Stella Riley's fabulous Rockliffe series

Overall
5 out of 5 stars
Performance
5 out of 5 stars
Story
5 out of 5 stars

Reviewed: 21-02-18

I always wait with eager anticipation when I know that there is another Stella Riley book due to be released in audio and am never disappointed. Ms. Riley's chosen narrator, Alex Wyndham, has a unique talent whereby he transforms anything this author writes from wonderful to extraordinary. Actor and author are completely in tune and The Wicked Cousin is a worthy addition to the author’s fabulous Rockliffe series.

2 of 2 people found this review helpful

Act Like It cover art

A beautifully crafted love story

Overall
5 out of 5 stars
Performance
5 out of 5 stars
Story
5 out of 5 stars

Reviewed: 12-01-17

Act Like it is a wonderful debut novel. Witty, funny, insightful - I loved every minute of it.

How to Capture a Duke cover art

Great narrator, disappointing story

Overall
4 out of 5 stars
Performance
5 out of 5 stars
Story
3 out of 5 stars

Reviewed: 27-11-16

The wonderful narration by Rosalyn Landor definitely rated 5* as always, however the content rated only 3*. It had potential; a returning soldier - promoted by default to a dukedom and who has lost a leg in the peninsula wars and an unusual girl; unorthodox, apparently unmarriageable with wild, bright red hair and a passion for archaeology. The premise interested me but I was disappointed as at times the story descended into the farcical and I found it difficult to concentrate. The talented Rosalyn Landor did her best but the unbelievable storyline let it down overall.

1 of 2 people found this review helpful

Salt Hendon Collection cover art

24 hours of blissful listening

Overall
5 out of 5 stars
Performance
5 out of 5 stars
Story
5 out of 5 stars

Reviewed: 24-11-16

It's hard to believe that Lucinda Brant's Salt Hendon Collection could be improved upon, but with the addition of the highly talented Alex Wyndham's performance that is exactly what has happened. This already powerful collection has been taken to a new level and I floated along on a cloud of bliss whilst listening to, and basking in, Alex Wyndham's velvety tones.

Mr. Wyndham captures every one of Ms. Brant's host of fascinating characters with aplomb and switches effortlessly between male and female, young and old with intonations and nuances so subtle that we, the listener, are never in any doubt as to who he has become - even during a multi-character conversation.

The uber talented Alex Wyndham has delivered the Salt Hendon Collection to perfection, bringing Ms. Brant's words into three-dimensional brilliance and offering us an insight into her opulent and fascinating Georgian world.

MY VERDICT: I defy anyone not to adore this feast of a collection and if you haven't already sampled the highly professional work of team Brant/Wyndham - what are you waiting for? Highly recommended!

1 of 2 people found this review helpful