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  • Garland of Straw

  • Roundheads and Cavaliers, Book 2
  • By: Stella Riley
  • Narrated by: Alex Wyndham
  • Length: 19 hrs and 36 mins
  • 4.8 out of 5 stars (72 ratings)

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Garland of Straw cover art

Garland of Straw

By: Stella Riley
Narrated by: Alex Wyndham
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Summary

The marriage of a well-bred Royalist lady and an illegitimate Roundhead Colonel is less a match made in heaven than a union doomed to hell. Unfortunately, Sir Robert Brandon's last will and testament leaves Venetia Clifford and Gabriel Brandon with little choice in the matter - deeply though they both resent it.

Their tempestuous relationship is reflected in the stormy events buffeting the nation as England slides inexorably into a second Civil War. Gabriel continues to serve in the New Model Army whilst, behind his back, Venetia engages in clandestine activities on behalf of the King; and the lives of both of them are further complicated when Gabriel's half-brother - to whom Venetia was formerly betrothed - returns from exile.

While the Army and Parliament argue over the fate of the King, Gabriel realises that he has a dangerous enemy and Venetia finally begins to see the man rather than the Roundhead Colonel. As events gather pace, bringing the King to trial, the tangled web of danger and deceit surrounding both Gabriel and Venetia slowly tightens its grip.

Set against the compelling times which led to the execution of Charles l, Garland of Straw is the story of a seemingly impossibly love an also provides further chapters in the lives of characters previously encountered in The Black Madonna and A Splendid Defiance.

©2013 Stella Riley (P)2020 Stella Riley

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Storytelling at its best

The combination of Stella Riley’s prose and the velvet tones of Alex Wyndham has brought to life the dark days of the Second Civil War, with unforgettable characters. I bought this book as a paperback in the ‘90s and have read it a number of times since, this audible production has added an extra dimension. I found myself going back to re-listen to a number of chapters to make sure I hadn’t missed any detail and also found myself looking into growing flax, researching Colchester and looking at Knaresborough Castle. Meeting new characters and renewing acquaintance with some from previous novels was delightful and the descriptive elements of buildings and landscape shows in-depth research.

I will leave it to other reviewers to précis the plot and discuss the characters, suffice it to say that I loved this and did not want it to end. Alex Wyndham’s rendition is sublime but he did have a wonderful book to work from. If you are looking for a longer novel to listen to which is historically accurate with a good plot line then I would recommend Garland. Enjoy!

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Excellent historical romance spiced with mystery

This is another gripping historical romance from Stella Riley with Alex Wyndham’s wonderful rendition. The second part of the “Roundheads and Cavaliers” series takes the listener back to the time of the second act of the English civil war in 1647 with lots of historical details of the events of this tormented period in English history. Many of the characters were already introduced in the “Black Madonna”, the first part of the series; and a few of them in “Splendid defiance”, the story of the siege of Banbury. However, the novel is understandable and enjoyable even if one has not read or listened to the above mentioned novels. If this is the first of Stella Riley’s books that comes into your attention, you can still enjoy Venetia Clifford and Gabriel Brandon’s story and I am sure you will want to read or listen to the other novels. I prefer listening to audiobooks because Alex Wyndham’s velvety and smooth voice and the way he portrays the characters with different voices adds something extra to the enjoyment of the story.

For someone who is not a native English speaker like myself, and learnt English history in school in small bits incorporated in lessons about Western European countries, it is fascinating to find out more about the English Civil War at the detailed level of political intrigues and individual battles in a well-researched novel. Fictional characters participate in the events with real participants in the Civil War, and their stories are interwoven with the tumultuous political and military events of the period. This mixture of history and fiction makes the novel fascinating and gives it a feeling of authenticity. But it is not an easy listen because of the successive and complex historical events that play an important part in the almost 20 hour long novel.

Stella Riley’s characters are never one faceted, they are always flesh and blood people with good treats and flaws as human beings always are. After the first chapter when the two main characters, Venetia Clifford, a convinced royalist, and Gabriel Brandon, an illegitimate son and a colonel in the New Model Army find out that they are bound to be married by a strange testament, I thought that it will be a kind of “Pride and Prejudice” Elizabeth and Darcy relationship between them. Soon it became obvious that it wouldn’t be like that, Venetia, the protagonist of the novel is prejudiced against Gabriel but on a very different foundation than Elizabeth in Jane Austen’s novel: that of social standing, origin and political views. She is also rude, aggressive, unfair, obstinate and impulsive. She is a very complex character but also negative and annoying in more than half of the novel. She is definitely not one of my favourite female characters from Stella Riley’s novels even if she has many positive traits I admire in women living in an era when social, political and economic life was male-dominated: she is brave, enterprising, committed and has spirit of initiative. Even Gabriel is ready to trust her with running the estate while he is away. Change in her opinion and attitude towards Gabriel starts to happen about the middle of the story and will progress slowly. Gabriel Brandon, emotionally stable, in control of his emotions, a good soldier and organiser, principled and honourable, forms his opinion of Venetia based on her behaviour and not on prejudices. He is the illegitimate son of Sir Robert Brandon and was raised by foster parents involved in trade; has forged himself a military career and doesn’t let his illegitimacy define who he is. The main romance line of the novel follows the evolution of the relationship between these two characters.

Among the secondary characters there are adorable persons and scoundrels. And sometime those of whom Venetia had good opinion prove to be completely undeserving. I especially liked the character of Phoebe Clifford, Venetia’s younger sister, who, not blinded by social and political prejudices befriends Gabriel from the very beginning and she has the courage to confront Venetia regarding her biased views on her husband’s character and actions. A wonderful secondary romance story develops between Samuel Radford already known from “Splendid Defiance”, an adept of Free-born John and Bryony Morrell, the daughter of Gabriel’s foster brother.

To all this events, add a mystery story entitled “Who wants to kill Gabriel Brandon?” and you have an exciting historical romance and mystery audiobook to listen to with a rendition that is more than simple reading of the novel: I feels like listening to a radio play with as many actors as the characters in the story.

I am looking forward to the third volume of the Roundheads and Cavaliers series, hopefully in Alex Wyndham’s interpretations.

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another absolutely brilliant story

Another absolutely brilliant story.
Last night I was up till the early hours of the morning, I just couldn't stop listening.
In the first half of the book I couldn't bear Venetia though, she was so rude and arrogant, she was simply awful, but then she got a lot better. Also there was a lot of politics, but I still loved every second of the story.
With Stella Riley's superb writing and Alex Wyndham's brilliant narrating I felt all the emotions and I felt like I was part of it all.
This is the 3rd book of the series but they can all be listened to on their own, but I highly recommend the whole series,
A Splendid Defiance is the first one, then The Black Madonna and A Garland of Straw.
All 3 were absolutely fabulous.
The King's Falcon and Lords of Misrule are still unavailable on audio but will definitely purchase them when they are. Can't wait.
More please. I just can't get enough of these stories. And im dying to listen to Eden's story.

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An important time in our history

Excellent story, well read and shines light on a sad time in our history. Thankykou

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Another Outstanding Success

Once again the wonderful pairing of Stella Riley and Alex Wyndham has come together in another triumph of writing and performance.
Garland of Straw is book 2 of Stella Riley’s superb Roundheads and Cavaliers series. It covers the period between the end of the first civil war and the trial and execution of the King.
From chapter 1 you are drawn into the story of the two leading players. Colonel Gabriel Brandon serves in Cromwell’s New Model Army and Venetia Clifford actively and clandestinely supports King Charles. These two are forced to accept the most bizarre last will and testament of Gabriel’s father, Robert Brandon.
This sets the scene for a rocky, mistrustful and sometimes bitter relationship as both Gabriel and Venetia attempt to manage situations that mirror that of King Charles and Oliver Cromwell, which at times seems out of control and doomed to failure.
However, it’s not just the relationships that are stretched to breaking point because, as with all Ms Riley’s books, there are hidden forces that threaten both Gabriel and Venetia’s lives and how this concludes is engrossing and unexpected.
Set against a background that has real people, from King Charles to Oliver Cromwell as well as Ms Riley’s own creations, the book is performed by Alex Wyndham’s amazing characterisations. Mr Wyndham’s engaging voices and smooth transitions, heightened emotions and superb timing, make this complex part of English history come alive and transports us back to the mid-17th century.
I loved it and was totally engrossed from start to finish.
I think the duo of Ms Riley and Mr Wyndham is tremendous as once again they have produced another outstanding success. Long may they reign!

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Enthralling

Number two in the quartet covering the English civil wars. A fascinating and compelling human drama set against, and inside, the landscape of the interim between the first and second English civil wars. Whole believable characters, a twisty, tale and excellent description - it kept me on the edge of my seat throughout! The narrator was simply superb! There was never any doubt who was speaking, accents are spot on and, somehow, Alex Wyndham managed to deliver the tale that even the history is easy enough to follow when engaged in some other task, simultaneously.

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Simply FABULOUS

Stella Riley only became known to me five years ago when a respected reviewer friend recommended her books on Goodreads. I was intrigued and chose The Marigold Chain for my first read, based purely on the title (I am always attracted by classy titles and covers and this author has both). TMC is a standalone story set during the restoration period and it was fabulous enough to make me want to read more.

I quickly realised what a treasure I’d found in this author. She combined all my favourite reading requirements - accurately researched and superbly presented historical detail, compelling and beautifully crafted love stories, with unforgettable characters - my marker for how much I have enjoyed a book. My initial feelings at finding a new and exciting author to follow haven’t waned and every new book Ms. Riley publishes is an auto-buy for me.

I admit I knew very little about this turbulent ten year period in the history of my country, other than King Charles I lost his head after skirmishes and battles between his supporters, the Cavaliers, and Parliament’s supporters, the Roundheads. A very simplified way of explaining it, but that was, much to my own disgust, the gist of what I knew before becoming enthralled with Stella Riley’s writing. I have since read and thoroughly enjoyed my way through the English Civil Wars, with Stella Riley teaching me what I should have learnt many years ago. The whole series is totally absorbing, entertaining, informative, fascinating and addictive, and I’ve read every book at least twice (there are two stand-alone books and four books in the series).

Garland of Straw covers the period immediately up to and including the trial and execution of King Charles I and is one of the most moving stories I have ever read. Stella Riley shows us, through her superbly researched historical scholarship and, for absolute clarity, her reference to the actual transcript of Charles’s trial, that these were real and emotional events; the utter rawness of such an inconceivable act becoming diminished by the ensuing years.

The fictional backstory is cleverly intertwined with the appalling but intriguing historical events. At this time, many families were split by their loyalties and this is one such story. Gabriel Brandon, a much respected colonel in the New Model Army (aka Roundheads), has always been a soldier and has sold his sword as a mercenary since his career as a soldier began in boyhood. His decision to fight on the side of Parliament is for no other reason than he is a man of honour who believes in fairness - politics have little influence on his life and he certainly has no wish to see the King tried and executed. Ultimately, he only wants to see the differences between King and Parliament resolved and his country at peace again. By the time he meets the beautiful royalist, Venetia Clifford, Gabriel has already become disillusioned, and especially by the actions of Cromwell and his Roundheads at Basing House in 1645, which horrifying events are described in detail at the end of the first book in the series, The Black Madonna (R&C, #1).

Gabriel is the elder and natural son of Robert Brandon and has become the unwilling recipient of Brandon Lacey, bequeathed to him by his father. Robert has died, and controversially, left his estate to Gabriel instead of his legitimate, younger son, Ellis, who is loyal to the king. Robert Brandon and his neighbours, the Cliffords of Ford Edge, have always been friends and this has never changed, even though their loyalties had diverged by the time the civil wars began. Robert had even taken steps to help the Clifford estate avoid becoming the subject of sequestration but his altruistic action doesn’t work out well for Ellis and Venetia who have been betrothed for years. Robert has apparently always had other ideas, and has had his will cleverly and irrevocably drawn up to make any marriage between them impossible. Per the terms of the will, it is now Gabriel and Venetia who must marry, and Robert has tied their hands so effectively that it seems they have little choice. If the marriage doesn’t take place, neither can escape their responsibilities; Gabriel cannot dispose of Brandon Lacey and worse still, must also take on the full financial and running responsibilities of Ford Edge and its dependents. Venetia’s elder brother, Harry, holds the key to their freedom, for if he returns to England and swears loyalty to parliament, Ford Edge will revert to him. However, Venetia discovers that Harry has other plans which do not include Ford Edge. Finally, after six fruitless months, Robert Brandon has his way from beyond the grave and the two enter into a marriage abhorrent to both.

Gabriel has been raised by a much loved foster family and is not ashamed of his birth. However, his illegitimacy is just one more stick Venetia has to beat him with; coupled with his political affiliations which are highlighted by the despised buff uniform and tawny sash, Gabriel’s in for a rocky road.

In the early stages I found Venetia quite hard and shrewish, although to be fair she had just cause, but still, I really hated the manner in which she treated Gabriel. He, on the other hand, remains dignified and honourable throughout, although no pushover. He’s an instantly likeable character and is probably the best loved of all the author’s characters. I must admit to being just a little under his spell myself, but then I’m always the same with her male characters because they’re always utterly delicious but slightly flawed. It’s how she develops her characters and, so depending on which one of her books I’m reading at the time, the MC is usually my favourite. I’m glad to say that Venetia well and truly redeems herself by the end of the story because in all aspects of her life other than in her early interactions with Gideon, she is hardworking and uncomplaining.

At the beginning of the marriage, Gabriel appears to have a mammoth task on his hands; he’s still a serving officer in the New Model army, someone has been making random attempts on his life, his wife despises him and, to top it off, just before his forced marriage, He discovered that the once thriving estate of Brandon Lacey has been almost bankrupted by his father to the Parliament’s cause. As they begin their uneasy relationship, the couple do have at least one thing in common, they care deeply for the estate and the people who depend on it. Gabriel is no farmer but he’s a smart man, tactics and organisation have long been a part of his life. He comes up with quite a radical plan that he hopes will save the estate and the livelihoods of his tenants. One which not only ploughs profits directly back into the estate but also into the pockets of his people, instead of the third parties who are presently benefiting. Initially Venetia is sceptical, nevertheless, she throws her energy behind it; one of the aspects I particularly like about her character is her no-nonsense approach. She’s been used to running everything at Ford Edge while her father and brothers have been away fighting for the king. Now, with only one brother left, and he in Europe, she has had the entire responsibility of the Clifford estate, her rather needy mother, and two younger sisters to deal with. So at least Gabriel has her garnered farming knowledge, if nothing else.

Fans of Ms. Riley’s popular Georgian Historical romance series will know that Gabriel’s original idea was very successful. Ms. Riley cleverly linked all three series together by using A Trick of Fate (Brandon Brothers, #1) to connect them all. The brothers are directly descended from Gabriel and Venetia and we can therefore see how very successful Gabriel’s initial idea was. Max Brandon, the MC of the new series is able to help struggling farmers with his great-great-grandfather’s innovative ideas. By Georgian times, the Brandons have well and truly recovered from the civil wars and are wealthy gentlemen farmers and horse breeders. Kudos to Stella Riley for this genius idea which came straight out of her clever, fertile imagination. I dislike having to say goodbye to favourite characters and so I’m a great fan of series being linked. To be able to witness Gabriel and Venetia‘s successes, and also that of their descendants, is really quite special.

The developing relationship between Venetia and Gabriel is very much baby steps to begin with - no insta-lust here (and in any case, that’s not the author’s style - ever). Her romances are generally slow-burn with a hard won HEA which, especially in this case, is plausible given the circumstances. It takes Venetia a long time to overcome her distaste of being married to a man she considers to be her enemy. Reluctant respect creeps in one night as she tends to his wounds after an unprovoked attack on his person. Inevitably the close proximity encourages a more normal conversation between them. As Venetia works and really listens for the first time, Gabriel’s decency and integrity begins to work its magic. It’s still slow going and, later on in the story, help comes from an unlikely quarter. Wat Larkin, has had Gabriel’s back since he was a young soldier and his loyalty to his friend is such that he would willingly give his life for him if necessary. Wat’s trust and respect is hard won so the fact that he and Venetia become allies in protecting Gabriel against his unknown enemy is a huge step forward in the eventual success of the couple’s marriage. Of course, when the scales finally fall from Venetia‘s eyes, she really sees him, not the uniform, but the man his father saw, with all the honour and strength of character his half brother, Ellis, lacks.

This is a much loved series, the characters, both fictional and non fictional, introduced throughout each book, quickly became very real to me. My personal favourites are the Maxwells, the fictional family in The Black Madonna (R&C, #1). I have a particularly soft spot for Eden who was so badly treated by his wife in that book. By now, he has been promoted to major and, as Gabriel’s second-in-command, is in evidence quite a lot. There are many of my favourites, far too numerous to mention, who re-appear; some have had, or get their own stories later on, and there are some who figure largely as secondary characters. Stella Riley doesn’t stint on her secondaries as they’re all fully developed, with compelling lives and intriguing back stories of their own, and many, such as Sam Radford, are almost as popular as the MC’s. Sam’s connection to the charismatic Justin Ambrose (A Splendid Defiance) can’t hurt his popularity and it was lovely to see Justin and his wife, Sam’s sister, Abigail, make an appearance, and to see how their lives have played out.

Alex Wyndham is the voice of Stella Riley’s characters. He has narrated all the books in her two Georgian series and is at present working his way through R&C. Since he narrated The Parfit Knight (Rockliffe, #1) some four years ago, I have noticed a change in his voice (mainly because I re-listen to Ms. Riley’s books frequently). Recently there’s been a new huskier quality to it, or maybe it’s simply maturity. He still has the rich timbre to his voice that he’s always had and is recognised for, but now, the added maturity, if that’s what it is, is especially effective in the performing of this exciting, epic historical saga. His handling of the author’s large cast of multi-faceted characters is done with great professionalism, and I applaud him because this is a highly complex and emotional story, both fictionally and non fictionally. Each character is clearly defined and recognisable, especially when in multi character situations such as Parliament sitting. The trial, judgement and public execution of Charles I, told by the author in Garland of Straw is a stunning piece of writing, and Wyndham’s perfect delivery of her words only adds to the tense and surreal atmosphere which had me on the edge of my seat even though I know what happened... that Charles Stuart, King of England and Scotland, was publicly executed in front of a crowd of his subjects. His words, spoken with quiet dignity....’I am a martyr of the people’... recorded for posterity.

Shocked and sickened after watching the execution of her king, Venetia is then thrown immediately into the midst of her own terrifying, living nightmare. As the story hurtles onwards, gathering momentum, and builds to its climax, we discover who Gabriel’s would-be silent assassin is.

Garland of Straw is my favourite kind of book - one that can, and needs to be read, or listened to, over and over again; there’s always more to be discovered on each re-visiting of it. The author’s decision to have this book recorded was very exciting news for her fans, and Alex Wyndham’s versatile and impressive performance has added another dimension to an already stunning and powerful story. Very highly recommended.

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It is just so good!

I loved reading this book and was patiently (but not really that patiently) waiting for Alex Wyndham to get his sweet voice back in the recording room so I could listen to Gabriel and Venetia’s story. It did not disappoint. I am unsure if it was just my brain losing the thread after 20hrs of listening, but I think there was a subtle change in Gabriel’s voice. Not a problem just a random observation. Because when he first speaks at the will reading in Ch.1 he almost sounded like a mixture of Rockliffe and Sherbourne which I was totally not expecting but SUPER down for. Then by the end he sounded more like Max Brandon (if you are reading this and unfamiliar with who I refer to, please do read Stella Riley’s other works or listen to them, she is brilliant and can do no wrong). But, this was more what I expected from AW’s interpretation of Gabriel’s character, so it was fine. Venetia’s cutting no-nonsense voice was perfection itself. As always the narration as wonderful.

Altogether this was as much, if not slightly more, of a joy to listen to as it was to read. The twist at the end, which on the page had taken me totally by surprise, was much more obvious in the Audiobook. I also found following the complexities of the lead up to King Charles’s execution much easier to follow by listening. I loved hearing Justin and Abigail’s voices again, though I’m still annoyed about Justin’s stupidity that led him back into the story. Sam and Bryony’s story was also lovely and adorable. It is always a pleasure catching up with previous characters. For those of you who haven’t read Garland of Straw. Be not afraid, it is a wonderful story—But not for the faint of heart! Then again, this series isn’t in general. It is nowhere near as light hearted as SR’s 18th century world. Also, I am not sure what it is about Stella Riley’s conflict love stories (The Mésalliance and A Splendid Defiance are my favourites and very volatile love stories) but I love them. The turbulence of this story is a rollercoaster but that much more rewarding as a result. I’ve read critiques of a crucial scene after a certain’s someone’s appearance at Brandon Lacey causes a massive argument (you will know THAT part once you listen). If you happen across these criticisms I would ignore them. For me, I always thought it was an interesting and suitable choice for this story not to mention the time period. AW did a stupendous job narrating all the emotionally fraught moments in the story. But then again, he never disappoints.

For those unfamiliar with SR’s 17th century universe, I highly recommend it. Start with a Splendid Defiance (it happens during Black Madonna but came out before and is a stand-alone) then work your way through the subsequent series, then read Marigold Chain because it is even more rewarding seeing Prince Rupert and Charles II again, but older. This is my favourite in the Roundhead & Cavaliers series, so I knew I’d love the audio version. Can’t wait to travel to Scotland and then France with Ashley and Frances in book 3. Hopefully it comes out.... well, not a year from now (Black Madonna was forever ago!) but sooner!! Yay for more Riley/Wyndham collabs.

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An Absolute Triumph!

Garland of Straw is my favourite in Stella Riley's Roundhead & Cavaliers series of books and having read this first on my Kindle in 2014 I had hoped that eventually there would be an audio version to accompany the book. I was therefore delighted when Audible recently released 'Garland' and have loved listening to Alex Wyndham's narration of this stunning book. I feel that I really must commend him on the brilliant way in which he gives each character such an instantly recognisable voice, ensuring that at all times the listener knows who is speaking, it makes immersing oneself in the plot a total joy. His transitions are seamless and his voice could best be described as an audible version of warm chocolate.

For anyone new to Ms Riley's work, this is an excellent book to both read and listen to. It follows on from The Black Madonna, although it can also be read as a stand alone in its own right. I won't go into the plot and spoil the book for newcomers, but I would say that the historical detail in the book is most impressive and the way in which the lives of Ms Riley's characters are woven through with real characters and historical events is sublime. You reach the end of the story having learnt so much about a period of our history that is very much overlooked in our schools and Ms Riley's wonderful writing, so rich in knowledge and detail, makes this complex period of English history come alive.

A stunning book, beautifully performed, bravo Stella Riley and Alex Wyndham, an absolute triumph!

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Brilliant!

An unbeatable combination. Stella Riley is among the greatest of this genre and Alex Wyndham is incomparable in conveying nuanced characterisation, allowing the listener to relax and immerse themselves into time and place.

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