I’m a great re-reader and there are many books I’ve read over and over. But there are certain books I’d love to be able to read again for the first time so I could have that wonderful sense of discovery for a second time. This is a listing not of my favorite books, though they mostly are, but books that took me to fascinating new places.
Mary Stewart was an inspiration for many romance authors, and this is the first of her books I ever read, though far from the last.
Technically I didn’t even read the book, but rather a condensation published in one of my mother’s Lady’s Home Journal magazines. I was enthralled by the location in Northumberland by the Roman wall and by the characters, the story, the romance, the lyrical prose, the suspense. And there was a twist at the end that I probably would have seen coming if I were an older and a more experienced reader. But it stunned me then, and it’s still a great story.
We’ve been busy these past few weeks, but there’s always time for reading!
For this month’s WWR, we have a great array of reads and recommendations to further topple your TBR pile. Browse through our picks, and please let us know what you’ve read and enjoyed recently.
The big reading news for November was the release of Sharon Shinn’s Whispering Wood, fifth in her Elemental Blessings fantasy series. Sharon is a master of worldbuilding and characterization and those qualities are fully on display. The people of her fictional country of Welce all have affinities for one of the five elements: Fire, Water, Air, Earth, and Wood. Each book concentrated on a protagonist with an affinity for one of the elements, starting with Book I, Troubled Waters. Whispering Wood is centered on hunti, the fifth element which is affiliated with wood. The heroine Valentina Serlast is a dedicated hunti introvert who wants to be left alone on the country estate. But her older brother, Darien, is about to be crowned king of Welce, so she’s forced to come to the capital city for the coronation. She starts out hating pretty much everyone <G>, but during her enforced stay she starts making friends, expanding her world, and reconnecting with Sebastian, the red headed rogue who has been her best friend since childhood. By the end of the story, she demonstrates the strength and tenacity that is the essence of her hunti heritage. Though the book stands alone pretty well, it’s best to start with Troubled Waters, the first in the series so you can watch the characters grow and change. It’s a rich, rich world!
For something completely different, I loved Emilie Richards’ women’s fiction book, When We Were Sisters.The story rotates between three points of view: Cecilia and Robin bonded as sisters when both were in foster care. They fought to stay together and helped each other survive and have stayed the closest of friends even as Cecilia becomes a pop star so famous she’s known by her first name. Robin gives up a promising career as a photojournalist to marry and have children. The third character is Robin’s husband Kris, a workaholic lawyer who was raised in poverty and is determined that his family will never have to struggle as he did. When Cecilia teams with a well respected documentary maker to produce a series about foster care, she asks Robin to be the still photographer for the production. When Robin accepts, her husband Kris has to figure out how to run a household and raise his two kids. The filming takes Cecilia and Robin through the challenges of the past and darkest secrets of that time. All three of the characters grow and change in a story I found compelling and positive. Emilie Richards is a terrific writer, and When We Were Sisters is one of the best women’s fiction novels I’ve ever read.
THE WHISPERED WORD(Secret, Book, and Scone Society Series #2), Ellery Adams
I’m a wee bit bored with all the cozy mysteries about bookshops, but this one is slightly different. The owner of the store, Nora, is an ex-librarian badly scarred from an incident that she caused herself. She provides what she calls bibliotherapy to her friends and customers. The town of Miracle Springs is a hot springs and health spa tourist area, so she sees many people who need help. The book starts off slow, but a malnourished, mistreated runaway held my interest until all the various action wheels began to turn. The characterization is a bit superficial because there are so many characters, but each one is easily defined after the first few chapters. The story itself is a humdinger, involving book lovers and long-lost secrets and con artists. By the end, the wicked are served justice and Nora and the runaway are in a much better place. And yes, there’s a quite romance as well. If you’re looking for something really cozy and quiet, give this one a try.
TEA AND EMPATHY: Tales of Rydding Village #1, Shanna Swendson
The queen of romantic fantasy is back! Shanna Swendson has a new series. In this first book, a runaway healer discovers a nearly abandoned village and hopes to hide by becoming the owner of a tea shop. But it’s impossible to hide her abilities, and when she finds a knight who obviously isn’t a knight in her garden, she knows the world will intrude too soon. But her knight in broken armor has no memory of who he is, and she hopes to stay a while longer in the community that needs her. I can’t tell more without giving away the story. Just know that this is lovely fantasy, with an interesting community of characters, and justice prevails. The romance isn’t complete. It’s a series, after all, and there’s this abandoned castle on the hill… So I expect many more delightful tales to come. Hurry, please!
This month has mostly been crime season for me. I read The Last Remains, by Elly Griffiths, the final book in her Ruth Galloway mystery series. As always, an intriguing crime story was mixed in with fascinating archaeology and that touch of the supernatural which always adds an extra layer to the mix. But as with all good books, it’s the relationships that make it so fascinating and this was a very satisfying ending to the series and to the relationship between Ruth and Nelson that has underpinned all the books. Still on a crime theme, I also enjoyed The Twist of a Knife by Antony Horowitz, an excellent “locked room” mystery in classic Agatha-Christie type style. Now I’m reading my way through all the LJ Ross DCI Ryan books in order…
Nicola here. Back in 2013 – ten years ago! – I wrote a blog piece reflecting on the way in which people have expressed their affection for each other over the centuries, which a month or so ago Pat Wench rediscovered when she was searching for Regency terms of endearment. We all got chatting about this again and I thought it would be fun to dig out and update the old post as it’s such an interesting topic for discussion. Times change and terms of endearment change with them – so here’s a new take on our favourite sweet nothings.
One day in 2013, a reader queried if my use of the endearment “sweetheart” was authentic to the Regency period. I was pretty sure that the word originated long before the 19th century but I ran to check my dictionary anyway and found that sweetheart was first used in the late 13th century. Originally written as two words, “swete” and “heart” it meant someone who made your heart beat faster. Back in the days when Henry VIII actually liked Anne Boleyn, he called her sweetheart a lot. Variations on this are “sweeting” which dates from 1350 and “sweetikins” which – extraordinarily, was first used in about 1600!
“Darling” is even earlier usage, dating to before the 12th century. Evidently finding an affectionate term for a loved one is something people have been doing for a long, long time.
Andrea here, musing today about backstories. Now, as a fiction writer, I consider backstories an integral part of the writing process for my characters. I try to imagine basic things about them—vulnerabilities, issues from the past, surprise revelations about quirks or talents—that I can reveal to readers. It’s especially fun if the characters are part of an ongoing series, where I can slowly unpeel layers—like with an onion!—to show the hidden depths.
But in my upcoming book, THE DIAMOND OF LONDON, the idea of backstory takes a little different twist. In this book I delve into a new genre of historical fiction and have penned a fictional biography. Yes, I know, that sounds like an oxymoron, and at first I wasn’t sure whether I felt comfortable taking it on. My publisher wanted to bring to life the stories of remarkable women in history whose achievements have been hidden for too long in the shadows of traditional historical narratives. I loved the idea so I decided to do delve into the challenge and see if I picture a way to combine fact and fiction, as I would be imagining my subject’s thoughts and feelings.
I chose Lady Hester Stanhope (above) as a possible subject. I knew a bit about her later life as one of the early 19th century’s most famous adventurer. She excavated ruins in the Levant, raised her own private army and brokered power-sharing with the warlords of the region, wore men’s clothing and rode astride . . . in other words, she said “convention be damned—I’m going to live exactly as I please!”
Christina here. There are some places that definitely have a magical feel about them. Places that have inspired countless stories, and where you can easily imagine yourself transported through time. I can’t compete with Pat’s fabulous journey to the land of the Incas in the previous post, but I recently visited Tintagel – the village and its ancient ruins – on the north Cornish coast, and it made a huge impression on me. It’s not as exotic, but it is still awesome!
Tintagel is located in a truly spectacular position. I hadn’t been there for a very long time, and was struck by how beautiful the place was. If I’d been a king or a chieftain of old, I would have wanted to live there too, even if it’s probably extremely cold during the winter months.
Not only are the views breath-taking, but it’s great for defensive purposes too. Originally, Tintagel was important during the 5th to the 7th centuries AD, when it was a port and stronghold, probably occupied by Cornish kings. Later on, in the 13th century, the Earl of Cornwall built himself a small castle there. The ruins of Tintagel castle, and whatever Dark Age dwellings existed before that, are built on a on a headland that is more like an island connected to the mainland by a small sliver of land. There are tall cliffs on three sides, scarily steep.
Below, on either side, are little coves where you can land boats or go swimming, weather permitting. There is even a cave tunnel that goes right the way through from one cove to the other, and going inside it feels very mystical indeed.
Visitors can still see what’s left of a Medieval hall and other buildings from the Earl’s time, but I was more interested in the older structures. There are about a hundred small rectangular structures from the Dark Ages (so called because we know very little about the period as there are very few historical sources), so it must have been quite a substantial settlement. Just walking around there made my writer’s brain start spinning with ideas, and I’m not alone – Medieval authors used it as part of the stories about King Arthur, who was supposedly conceived at Tintagel. I really wanted to believe that as it’s so magical!
Most people will have heard of King Arthur and his Knights of the Round Table. It’s a story that has fascinated people through the ages, and it’s easy to see why. A brave and noble king with a magical sword that only he can wield, a sorcerer to help him defeat his enemies, a queen who betrays him with one of his handsome knights, and a treacherous nephew, among other things. All wonderful ingredients for an exciting tale – what’s not to like? But the thing we probably all want to know is (or at least, I do) – was he real? Did he actually exist? Sadly, no one knows for sure, and most historians doubt that he was a historical figure, although it is possible.
Some people think he was a Roman leader who stayed behind when the legions left Britain in the 5th century. Others believe he might have been Welsh, and a leader of the Britons fighting against the Anglo-Saxon invaders who came swarming in shortly after the Romans’ departure. His name is intriguing – I’ve read that Arth/Arto meant ‘bear’ in Welsh/Brythonic respectively, and Ursus is also Latin for ‘bear’. So perhaps the two were somehow joined together to form one name by people who spoke both languages? It could also be derived from the Roman family name Artorius, or from the brightest star in the constellation Ursa Major – Arcturus (which means ‘Bear Guardian’).
Someone called Arthur is mentioned in an early Welsh poem called Y Gododdin, and in a few other historical sources, most of them written down long after the time when he was supposed to have lived. Later writers used these tales as a basis for their own re-tellings – particularly Geoffrey of Monmouth and Chrétien de Troyes. Their stories added a lot of imaginary details and new characters, and are the ones we would recognise as those of King Arthur. And the original tale spawned many others that we know and love today, like Tristan and Iseult (or Isolde as she’s also called).
In this wild and windswept place, it’s easy to imagine yourself back in the 5th century, and to conjure up brave warriors and their families living there. It made me want to write something set during the Dark Ages, just so I could use this fabulous location as the background. I could quite see why poets like Alfred, Lord Tennyson, and artists like the Pre-Raphaelites were obsessed with tales of chivalry set in locations such as this. As a huge fan of their work, I understood where their inspiration had come from.
The 19th century revival of interest in the Arthurian legends gave rise to so many amazing paintings. These two works by John William Waterhouse and Edmund Blair Leighton show their take on the Tristan and Iseult story. I love old-fashioned poetry, and Tennyson’s Lady of Shalott is wonderful! If I’d been a painter, I would have wanted to capture this story on canvas as well.
The idea of chivalry and romance has always resonated with me – perhaps because I was hooked on fairy tales as a child. My only problem with them is that most of the Arthurian stories seem to have sad endings. They always seem unnecessary to me, and I itch to rewrite them. (Actually, I usually do that in my head). I guess I’ll just have to pen my own Dark Age story with a guaranteed happy-ever-after!
How about you – do you like the stories of King Arthur, and do you believe he could have been a real person?