…with the Wenches' ever popular "What we're reading" blog. Dig out your credit cards, we're going for a joy ride!
I've always known that Jennifer Ashley is a very talented, prolific author who writes historical romances, paranormals, and historical mysteries, but I hadn't found her Leonidas the Gladiator series, written under her Ashley Gardner pseudonym. So far there are only two novels and a novella, but more are coming. The first book is Blood of a Gladiator.
Leonidas is the premier gladiator in Rome, a rock star fighter who is recognized in the streets, but he has reached the point where he can't face any more killing. That is the moment when he receives his freedom from slavery and can finally quit being a gladiator and make his own life–if he can figure out how.
He has no financial resources, but an unknown benefactor gives him a modest apartment and a slave of his own: Cassia, who is a scribe. Illiterate Leonidas doesn't know what to do with a slave who does doesn't cook or do housework, but she can help him find jobs and is very good at negotiating contracts and making sure they get paid.
Initially Cassia is afraid of him, but he's a good guy and doesn't ravish her and gradually they develop a bond of trust. And have to deal with unexpected murders. Ashley Gardner creates a wonderful sense of place and what it would be like to live in Rome during the reign of Nero. But the best part is the characters and their slowing developing relationship.
The Kaiju Preservation Society by John Scalzi
Scalzi is a bestselling science fiction author and a very good storyteller and he's won all the big awards several times. In the afterword of this book, he explains how he was supposed to be writing a Big Complicated Book with Important Ideas during the lockdown, but he just couldn't. (A position I totally understand.)
He'd just told his editor to forget about getting a book for this year when he had an idea for a short, light, fun story, a pop song of a book. And thus was born The Kaiju Preservation Society. For those like me who didn't know, "kaiju" is a Japanese word for a great big city-smashing monster like Godzilla, though I gather the word is used for other great big city smashing monsters.
Jamie Gray, our narrator, was working on a PhD in literature when he chucks it to go to NYC and make good money doing marketing at a start up food delivery company. Which is fine until his ghastly boss steals his ideas and fires him from his executive position but generously allows him work as a food delivery guy just at the city is going into the pandemic lockdown. With no other options, Jamie buckles down and delivers food–until one of his regular customers in desperate need of a new worker offers him a job with an 'animal rights' organization. They protect large animals, but Jamie will have to agree immediately and be willing to go off the grid for months at a time.
Jamie jumps at the chance, and soon learns that the kaiju are on an alternate earth filled with critters that want to eat anything in sight, including humans. He's practically the only one on the base that isn't a PhD scientist but the world is fascinating and his coworkers are great. But it turns out that 100 meter tall monsters are not the most dangerous things on Kaiju Earth.…
I found the story fast moving, intriguing, full of deadpan humor, and great fun to read even if you've never seen a Godzilla movie. <G>
This month I read and loved Sarah Morgan’s latest release, Beach House Summer. This is a fabulous summer story that kept me turning the pages until 4am! When Joanna Whitman's famous ex-husband dies in a car accident, her quiet life disappears in an instant as she becomes the target of the kind of media frenzy she’s always tried to avoid. A young, pregnant woman was with him in the crash, and she survived but is totally unprepared for the attention this brings from the press.
Somewhat unexpectedly, Joanna comes to her rescue and the two forge a bond with surprising results. The characters are wonderful, the story emotional and poignant, and the second chance romance in one plot strand, plus the friends-to-lovers romance in another, had me on tenterhooks hoping for a happy resolution to both. I didn't want it to end and at the same time I couldn't stop until I finished. The characters lingered in my mind – the sign of a truly good book!
I also picked up Book Lovers by Emily Henry. This was an unusual story that played with all the common romance tropes and I really enjoyed it! Nora is a literary agent who loves her fast-paced life in New York and has no time for sentimentality. Charlie is an editor who is known for being equally ruthless. Their first meeting is a disaster, but two years later they both end up in a tiny town in North Carolina and begin to see a different side to each other. Here they are both ducks out of water who don’t fit in, and the chemistry between them is off the charts.
I loved seeing this relationship develop and the quirky cast of characters around them were great too. The stereotypes are all there, but the story doesn’t progress the way it should in a rom-com. This odd couple grows on you and I was rooting for them all the way. In fact, I liked it so much, I went on to buy and read another of her books – Beach Read – which was also great.
Finally, I read something I’ve never tried before – an LGBT YA novel, Rebel Boys and Rescue Dogs, or Things that Kiss with Teeth by Brianna R. Shrum. The heroine, Brynn, is a neurotic, over-anxious teenage girl who is desperate to escape her family’s bad reputation and the trailer park she lives in. She studies hard, is on tonnes of committees, and has barely any social life. But the one time she goes to a party, everything goes wrong and she ends up arrested and given community service. She doesn’t want anyone to find out, but the pitbull rescue centre where she starts work is owned by the father of one of her classmates, Oliver. He happens to be someone Brynn screwed out of a major scholarship opportunity and he’s furious. If he should happen to tell anyone at school that she was arrested, everything she’s worked so hard for will disappear. She’s forced to make a pact with him – he’ll keep her secret if she helps him get another shot at the scholarship. Slowly but surely, Brynn starts to want Oliver for more than his ability to keep quiet. But Oliver is not your average high school guy and things are complicated …
Although the heroine almost drove me crazy with her selfish attitude and her anxiety about absolutely everything, I couldn’t help but empathise with her at the same time. I was rooting for her and hoping she’d found a soulmate in Oliver. The story was unusual (for me) and fascinating, and I’m really pleased I picked it up.
A Death at Fountains Abbey, by Antonia Hodgson, a Thomas Hawkins mystery. This is part of a series and it’s obvious the protags have a long history together. Thomas is a gentleman rake and gambler who long ago lost his inheritance, but apparently he’s a pleasant fellow who loves his tavern wench, who tends to be stubborn and sometimes smarter than he is. Tasked by the queen to retrieve the green ledger containing the names of all the aristocrats who survived the South Sea Bubble–while the rest of the country plunged into bankruptcy–Thomas pretends he’s visiting at the queen’s behest to solve death threats to her former chancellor, the one who promoted the South Sea shares.
I am not a fan of thrillers, but I like a good mystery with history, so I skipped the suspense passages and didn’t miss a beat. The research is outlined at the end, although much of it is woven seamlessly into the story so it isn’t burdened with historical detail. There are passing references to wigs but little more to give away the time period beyond the history. Mostly, it’s just a good solid mystery that isn’t easily solved.
Christina beat me to it recommending Sarah Morgan’s Beach House Summer which I also thought was a fabulous read so I’ll just say that I echo everything Christina says about the wonderful characters and rich emotional story. It’s another winner from a Wench favourite author!
This month I’ve been re-reading some old favourites in historical fiction, as well as some new ones. First up was The Wild Hunt by Elizabeth Chadwick which was her first book, written in 1990. I’d forgotten quite how vivid and fascinating this story was and rediscovering it was such a treat. It’s set in Wales in the 12th century where Guyon of Ledworth is riding home from the court of King William Rufus through the troubled border lands. The King has decreed that he should make a marriage with Judith of Ravenstow. The families have always been enemies…
Judith is no more enamoured of the potential match than Guyon is, less so in fact as she is in her teens and resentful of having her fate decided so peremptorily.
However the two of them have to find a way to come to terms and as war and political intrigue erupt, the only way they can survive is together.
I loved the way in which the author depicted the evolving relationship between Judith and Guyon, showing how they get to know and trust one another first before they fall in love. Guyon is a fabulous hero, possessed of all the knightly qualities you could ask for. He is patient and thoughtful as he courts his new young wife very slowly. He has to wait for Judith to grow up and both of them learn and grow as characters whilst this happens. It’s beautiful and romantic and the background of the turbulent period in Welsh history is so well drawn it’s completely engrossing. I loved it. I’m now reading Elizabeth Chadwick’s most recent book, A Marriage of Lions, and enjoying that equally as much.
On a different note, I raced through The Night Hawks by Elly Griffiths, which is number 13 in the Ruth Galloway series. It’s possibly even more creepily suspenseful than the other books in the series with all the usual ingredients of magic and folklore, crime, the bleak but beautiful Norfolk landscape and of course the simmering tension of the relationship between Ruth and Nelson. It made it all the more vivid that I was reading it whilst on holiday in Norfolk!
Anna Quindlen's newest, Write for Your Life, explores the importance of writing to everyone, authors and others, how writing underscores and preserves the significance of what happens around us and within us. She begins with a look at Anne Frank's diary, how the mundane little details and ephemera of life captured by a young girl in extraordinary circumstances became one of the most important books of that century and humanity. Then she goes on to explore creative writing classes, handwriting and the loss of it in our time, and a host of wonderful topics that we might think about now and then. Quindlen probes deeper to find the worth and the meaning of it. Interspersing warm and thoughtful essays with quotes, all packaged in a beautiful little book, Write for Your Life is a love letter to the expression and the art of writing.
Though I haven't read Joshilyn Jackson before now, she's been on my wish list, and when I heard she's writing taut mysteries now, I jumped in. Mother, May I is about as sharp and absorbing a contemporary thriller-mystery as they come, and I was riveted. Bree Cabat, wife of a lawyer and mom of three, has a good life–until the day a creepy old woman steals her infant from right under her nose. Guilt-ridden and devastated, Bree must respond immediately and secretly, faking all is well while dealing with the woman's demands in order to protect her child.
The primal and emotional premise of a mother dealing with the kidnapping of her child is a tough subject, and as a longtime mom, I was pretty worried (susan! it's fiction!) — but Jackson is an absolute master of every part of the writing craft, from fiercely good prose to authentic characters and a plot that rolls along. Bree, her husband, his detective best friend, her children and others are real characters down to their toes, tangible, resourceful, resilient, and flawed, so that the reader is just pulled right in as the tension mounts and the layers in the mystery become more involved — and surprises at every turn lead to an unexpected resolution. Just a cracking good story, and I'm looking forward to reading more of Jackson's books.
This month I glommed through the latest books by two of my favorite authors. I’m a huge fan of the Regency-set Sebastian St. Cyr mystery series by C. S. Harris, and Where Blood Lies, the 17th book in the series, was, as usual, a fascinating and riveting read. It’s not easy to keep a long-running series fresh, but Harris has created a very complex and mysterious backstory to Sebastian’s life and what makes him tick, and she's been cleverly unraveling bits and pieces throughout the books.
In this latest addition, Napoleon has just been banished to Elba and the Bourbon king restored to the throne of France, which allows Sebastian and his wife to travel to Paris. Sebastian has been trying to locate his long-lost mother (that’s a whole backstory in itself) and he’s finally discovered she’s been living in the city for years. He’s hoping to learn the truth from her about the identity of his real father. However, he finds that she’s been brutally attacked and stabbed, and she dies before she can answer any of his questions.
Intent on unraveling why she was killed and bringing the murderer to justice, Sebastian and his wife quickly find themselves caught up in a tangled web of treachery and deceit as Royalists and supporters of Napoleon play a devious “game of thrones.” Readers get an interesting look at Paris and the history of French politics as well as a twisty mystery. The writing and character development are superb, and I enjoyed it thoroughly.
I’m also a huge fan of Deanna Raybourn. Those of you who are familiar with her wonderful Lady Julia Grey and Veronica Speedwell historical mystery series know that Deanna writes very strong—and delightfully eccentric—women protagonists.
I was lucky enough to snag an ARC of her upcoming September book, Killers of a Certain Age. (which is currently available for pre-order.) It’s something different for Deanna—a contemporary novel featuring . . . women of a certain age. Four women in their 60’s have been working for the past 40 years as assassins for a clandestine international organization known only as “The Museum,” whose lofty mission is to rid the world of bad guys—arms dealers, human traffickers, corrupt business titans and politicians, and other equally evil slimeballs. Informed that it’s time for them to retire, the four of them are not happy, but decide to take the fancy all-expenses-paid cruise offered as a thank-you from The Museum’s three directors—only to discover that they themselves are being targeted for elimination.
But never underestimate the wiles of women of a certain age! They elude the first attack, and then set out to discover why they are a target, and what to do about it. Let the fun begin—and the blood flow! Deciding that their own only option is to eliminate the three male directors, they must figure out how to do so with few resources to call on save for their own wits and ingenuity. It’s a fabulous darkly comic and snarky story. The interplay between the four women, each facing different challenges in the aging process, is just wonderful. I highly recommend it!
In the last month, I've been reading old favorites — a lot of Trisha Ashley. The new books I've read are one romantic comedy and one crime novel.
Nora is a cut-throat literary agent at the top of her game — she's known as "the shark" and New York is her territory. Charlie is a grouchy New York editor with a talent for creating bestsellers. The only time he and Nora met, they clashed. Burned by her failures in love, Nora is no longer interested in dating, but her younger sister persuades her into a one month vacation in the small town of Sunshine Falls, the setting of her top client's runaway romance bestseller. They make a list of things to do — the idea being to shake Nora out of her rut . . . And of course, instead of meeting sexy shepherds or handsome bartenders, who turns up in this one-horse town, but Charlie.
It's a fun read, with some good depth as two cynical, mismatched people find they have much more in common than they thought. And in the meantime Nora's relationship with her sister needs work . . . A recommended read with a feel-good ending.
The crime novel was City of Scars, the latest in JD Kirk's Scottish crime series starring DCI Logan. As usual, JD Kirk has created a cracking good crime/mystery with dramatic action, and at the same time the interplay between the members of DCI Logan's police team infuses the book with some wonderful character-based humor. Highly recommended — but if you haven't read any of these, it pays to start with the first book, and get to know the characters as they develop.
See any you like? What have you been reading? Tell us, please!