Nicola here, introducing this month’s Ask A Wench where we are talking about old and new treasures on the bookshelf, which is a riff on the “if you like this author, you’ll enjoy this one” idea. Amazon in particular makes a point of recommending authors on the basis of the books you order from them. Sometimes their recommendations are spot on and you discover another great author in the same genre. Other times, their idea of similar authors is a bit wayward. I cherish the occasion I ordered a copy of Jo Beverley’s St Raven and Amazon recommended I also buy “Crows and Jays of the World.”
My keeper shelf has some treasures that are so old they are falling to pieces: Daphne Du Maurier’s Frenchman’s Creek, Georgette Heyer’s Devil’s Cub and Robert Neill’s Mist over Pendle to name but a few. These books are special, as much for the memories we associate with them – when we first read them, what was happening in our lives at the time and so on. It’s difficult to find other, more recent, authors who match. Occasionally though a new treasure comes along to take it’s place beside the old books on the keeper shelf. Perhaps the author’s voice has echoes of an old favourite or their writing reminds us of a long-ago treasure. Below the Wenches give an insight into their thoughts on treasures old and new.
Topping my old book treasures list is always Mary Stewart–her books, for me, are still fresh and beautiful,her voice unique and incomparable. I still learn from reading her books. Other older, special stories and voices filling my bookshelves include Anya Seton, Daphne du Maurier, Victoria Holt, Rosemary Hawley Jarman, Elizabeth Peters, Ellis Peters, Dorothy Sayers and more … They dazzle among the older treasures, because each one opened up reading directions that inspired me to explore genres, subjects, writing craft. I'm still in awe of some old nonfiction treasures too, such as Antonia Fraser’s Mary, Queen of Scots, Vita Sackville-West’s Joan of Arc, and Thomas Costain’s history of the Plantagenets. I cherished and reread them all, and learned and absorbed a lot about reading as well as writing good fiction and nonfiction.
The magic of discovering and exploring those unforgettable, exciting books is hard to match now — I'm different as a reader and a writer, more mature, more experienced, bringing a different perspective with me when I open a book. I still return to the older books now and then for an infusion of that early energy.
My shelves are filling with new treasures too – Alan Bradley’s Flavia de Luce mystery series, Elizabeth Chadwick’s medievals, Lindsey Davis’s Marcus Didius Falco mystery series (still ongoing, with now another Flavia, Didius Falco's daughter, taking up the baton) … too many to list, really. In nonfiction, I particularly love Elizabeth Gilbert, Laura Hillenbrand, Fred Anderson’s histories, and a few others. But it was those early treasured reads that taught me so much about books and writing, and I find that because of them, now I gravitate to skilled and strong writing, storytelling and historical inquiry that bring that sense of fresh discovery.
Joanna says: I love me some lyrical fantasy writing: Peter S Beagle’s The Folk of the Air. The House on the Strand by Daphne du Maurier. Manly Wade Wellman’s Appalachian stories. I like the intersection of everyday life and the fantastic in these stories
I think they call this magical realism when it appears as serious literature. I don't know what they call this when it's genre. Under the heading of cool and recent stuff, I'd list Mercedes Lackey, especially her ‘Wheels of Fire’ books and her Urban Elves. An example would be Music to My Sorrow.
By now, readers should know how much the Wenches ALL love Mary Stewart! In my early teens, I devoured her books. The combination of plucky heroine, exotic adventure, and dashing romance captivated my imagination. I think what I loved most about her books, though I wouldn’t have articulated it at the time, was the strong, resourceful, independent heroines. Within the confines of her time, and the societal constraints on how “proper” women were supposed to behave, Stewart still managed to give her female characters intelligence, grit and the courage to break the rules. (It’s no wonder that all of us Wenches write strong women!)
So I suppose it’s no surprise that today, I really enjoy authors who write unconventional heroines. Add some mystery and an exotic setting and I’m “in alt!” One of my favorite contemporary voices is Deanna Raybourn. I’m a huge fan of her Victorian-set Lady Julia series and her new Veronica Speedwell. But the book of hers that really echoes the youthful love of Mary Stewart is A Spear of Summer Grass. set in 1920s Africa. The feisty heroine, Delilah Drummond, is forced to rusticate in Africa after one to many scandals in London. Faced with the wild, untamed nature of continent, a devilishly attractive hunter/explorer—and a murder that shatteres the expat community, she goes through a journey of discovery in every way. Raybourn’s voice is sly and sophisticated, and laced with tart humor. She’s become an auto read!
Mary Jo says: We Wenches have similar tastes! I echo Susan and Andrea in their endorsement of Mary Stewart, whose lyrical romantic suspense stands the test of time. (Though her characters smoked a lot!) And like Anne, I agree that Georgette Heyer and Eva Ibbotson are timeless and wonderful.
Certainly I have current favorite authors who I love as much as authors I loved from the past. But comparing styles is difficult, perhaps because it seems as if all of my favorites have distinctive voices that are part of what make them favorites. Eva Ibbotson has a light, witty sweetness that is unique and can be as funny as it is romantic. Georgette Heyer–well, there's a reason she's known as "St. Georgette" in Regency circles.
One comparison I can make is the voice of Amelia Peabody in Elizabeth Peters' immortal Crocodile on the Sandbank, which launched her long running series of Egyptian archeological mysteries. (But Crocodile is my favorite because it's the most romantic!)
I'm finding and loving a similar voice in Marie Brennan's Lady Trent fantasy series, which features a heroine who is a Victorian style natural historian who is passionate and fearless in her study of dragons. (And she has romance, too!)
As for other modern favorites? Well, there is only one Patricia Briggs with her marvelous Mercedes Thompson and related Alpha and Omega series. Would that there were more of her!
But I think I'll return to my prior point: my very favorite authors have distinctive voices, and each is one of a kind. And cherished for exactly that reason.
My faves from when I first fell for romantic stories my youth include Georgette Heyer, Eva Ibbotson and Mary Stewart, and I have to say, no modern author matches the appeal of the best of those. Heyer's humor, characterization and deft lightness of touch is unmatched, and Ibbotson comes close.
Probably the modern author who comes closest to evoking memories of Mary Stewart is our own Susanna Kearsley, and I thought that long before I met her or she joined the wenches. She isn't imitating Stewart — her voice is very much her own, and her stories are quite different, but there's something about her voice and style of storytelling that made me think of Mary Stewart. When I first discovered her books and was urging friends to read then, I used to describe her as a kind of modern Mary Stewart, only with a historical bent as well.
Nicola again: I totally agree with those Wenches who say that we cherish our old favourites for the distinctive quality of the voice of those authors. I have also had the pleasure of discovering a few authors who are “new treasures” because their style combines some of the old qualities that I love with a fresh new voice. One of those is Elizabeth Hanbury whose traditional Regencies are witty, charming and an absolute delight. Another is Anne O'Brien whose wonderful historical novels remind me of all the Jean Plaidy and Margaret Campbell Barnes books I devoured as a teenager.
How do you feel about old treasures? Is it ever possible to find a modern authors to match your keepers? What old treasures do you have on your shelves and which current authors would you recommend who can measure up to the old favourites?