What We’re Reading – May

Traitor's KnotNicola here, introducing this month's feature on our Wenchly reading. After what felt like a long reading slump I’ve had an amazing month of good books. I was lucky enough to be a judge for the RNA Debut Novel award and really enjoyed the experience; there was a huge range of books in contention this year, ranging from an 18th century historical set in Ireland that was based on a riveting true story – Heart of Stone by John Jackson – to a laugh out loud romantic comedy – Perfect Match by Zoe May – with a load of other great books as well. You can find the whole list here if you would like to see what else is on there and if you enjoy the 17th century I can really recommend Traitor’s Knot by Cryssa Basos, a brilliantly-written, fast-paced and romantic historical adventure set during the English Civil War.

As if that wasn’t enough, I read Island in the East by Jenny Ashcroft which is one of the richest My Lady Thief and most exotic romantic historicals I’ve read in a long time. It reminded me of MM Kaye in the vivid drawing of the characters, the complex emotional relationships, the beautiful writing and the way that the location was a vivid character in itself.  The story is set in a dual time frame, Singapore in the Second World War and a parallel story forty years earlier.  In 1897, identical twins Harriet and Mae Grafton are sent to Singapore by their wealthy benefactor and their sibling love and support is fractured by rivalry and betrayal. In 1941, Ivy Harcourt, already suffering from wartime trauma, is posted to Singapore where she uncovers secrets from her grandmother Mae's past and experiences a romantic love of her own. I particularly loved Ivy and her hero Kit and were rooting for them all the way through.

 In between I also found the opportunity to glom on more of Emily Larkin’s Regency historicals (thank you, Anne, for the original recommendation!) and found what I think is my favourite so far, My Lady Thief. I loved everything about this book; the admirably confident heroine who had been made all the stronger by her traumatic past, the uptight hero who was utterly gorgeous underneath his stuffy exterior, and the beautiful way in which their relationship developed.

Dark AngelAnne writes: I finished Sebastien de Castell's four book swashbuckling series, "The Greatcoats", and found it a most satisfying read. If you're interested, start with Traitor's Blade.

Next I read Elly Griffiths, Dark Angel.  It's book #10 in her Dr. Ruth Galloway series, and I recommend you start at the beginning, not because each mystery can't be read on its own, but because the development of various characters through the series is a big part of the pleasure in reading these books. Elly Griffiths' narrator, Ruth has a dry, ironic humor that gently infuses her observations. Well worth reading.

I also read an advanced copy of Lucy Parker's new book, Making Up, which I loved. Lucy Parker wowed the Making up wenches with her debut, Act Like It, and the follow-up, Pretty Face, and I felt very smug that I scored an early read of her third book in her "London Celebrities" series. I'm interviewing Lucy Parker on Friday. Stay tuned.

Mary Jo here:

Amanda Quick is the historical pseudonym of Jayne Ann Krentz, and she's made an interesting progression over the years: The Quick books started with Regencies, moved to Victorians, and in her new Burning Cove series, the setting is the 1930s in a glitzy California seaside resort with links to Hollywood.  The first book of the series, The Girl Who Knew Too Much, came out last year and the second, The Other Lady Vanishes, is a new release. 

The other lady vanishesThe book begins with heroine Adelaide escaping from a horrible private asylum where she has been illegally held captive.  Once free, she heads to Burning Cove and a quiet life working in a tea shop.  But the past reaches out to ensnare her, a hot guy named Jake is in town in theory to help his nerves (which are actually made of steel <G>) and the action is on.  I like the 1930s setting, which is both familiar and distant, and there are hints of a world building toward war, though the focus is on Adelaide and Jake.  A rousing good read.

I also noticed that the first books in two series by Sharon Shinn, one of my favorite fantasy authors, are now Archangelonly $2.99 in e-editions. Shinn is a master of world building, and Archangel is set in a world where human-but-winged angels are overseers for the rest of the population.  Gabriel, who is slated to become the next Archangel, a post that is held for 20 years, needs to find his god-designated wife, but she has disappeared–and when he finds her, she is not keen on the program!  Don't be put off by the dark cover, it's a great read with a powerful romance.

The other series is the Elemental Blessings and the first book is Troubled Waters. Again, there is great world building and a fine romance.  Happy reading!


Still lifeThis past month I’ve been delving into the far-too-mountainous TBR pile, trying to catch up with all the recommendations I’ve been meaning to read. I heard Louise Penny speak at the Malice Domestic mystery conference last month, so was determined to finally start her Chief Inspector Gamache contemporary mystery series, set in Quebec, Canada. Am I glad I did! The first book, Still Life, follows the traditional cozy trope of a murder—this one of a 70 yr old woman in a small, isolated town, who seemed to have no enemies. But as the Inspector begins delving into the lives of the inhabitants, the peaceful tranquility is not what it seems. Penny writes wonderfully complex and vulnerable characters, and has a sharp eye for the nuances of family dynamics and marital relations. Inspector Gamache is a very interesting protagonist, too, and I’n really looking forward to continuing the series.

I also finally  read Major Pettigrew’s Last Stand, by Helen Simonsson, a delightfully charming book about a Major Pettigrewwidowed retired English officer—a seemingly ordinary, by-the-book pillar of the community who strikes up a friendship with the Pakistani widow of the local convenience store . . . and suddenly begins to question what’s really important in life. There are laugh aloud scenes as the “new” major deals with his ambitious status-conscious son and his long-time friends at the golf club who think he’s gone off the rails. It’s a sly, witty commentary on modern life, but also a sweetly poignat celebration of "second acts” in life.

From Pat:

Heirs of GraceI've been in a reading slump lately, so perversely, I decided to clean out my TBR stack. You know how a TBR stack goes–the ones you just don't feel like reading right now drift to the bottom. It's probably a totally unfair means of choosing a book and predictably, I haven't finished a book in weeks. Nothing made me happy except a few old comfort reads I'd bought because they were on sale.

But back before my slump, I read HEIRS OF GRACE by Tim Pratt. Okay, I bought this because I'm a sucker for the fantasy of inheriting a big old mysterious house. In this case, the protagonist is an impoverished art student from Chicago who oddly inherits a derelict hoarder’s mansion in the mountains of NC. She knows she’s an orphan and assumes the person who left her the house was a relative—and quite a relative he was. The story is basically fantasy with Rebekah Lull learning about her magical family and having adventures and learning the morality of being almost all-powerful. There’s a witty boyfriend for the romance plot. I really wanted more on the personal side, but the story was a fun fantasy ride, and I happily followed it to the conclusion. If inheriting old houses and magic is your thing, this one’s for you!

 So, what are you reading  that delights, surprises, moves or intrigues you?

Marie Brennan & Lady Trent: An Interview with Dragons

NaturalHistoryDragonsb by Mary Jo

Though I'm a lifelong reader of both historical novels and science fiction and fantasy, I somehow managed to miss Marie Brennan's Lady Trent series until I read about the upcoming release of the fifth and last of her series of memoirs written by a distinguished dragon naturalist.

Dragons? Lady Trent? Within the Sanctuary of Wings? Clearly this was something I must investigate! So I cautiously tried the first book, A Natural History of Dragons. And was hooked, big time. I've very grateful that the series was complete when I started to read it!

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Juliet Marillier

Anne here introducing our latest guest, Juliet Marillier, whose name might be familiar to you, either from your own reading or because I've recommended her novels in a number of posts. I'm a huge fan, and I'm not alone: here's her goodreads page. JM-with-Harry_sq

Juliet writes historical fantasy— her stories weave folklore/fairy tales into history in, for example, places like ancient Ireland at the time just before Christianity makes its first appearance. She's an internationally bestselling, award-winning author. She's won the American Library Association’s Alex Award, the Aurealis Award (numerous times), the Sir Julius Vogel Award and the Prix Imaginales, among other awards. She's also a passionate dog-lover with a small tribe of rescue dogs. This is Juliet with one of her dogs, Harry.

TOT US final correctedToday I'm interviewing her about her latest book, the second in the Blackthorn and Grim series. I haven't yet read it (it's still in transit), but I opened Dreamers Pool (the first book) the other day — meaning only to glance through it and refresh my memory. Instead I found myself rereading it from cover to cover again, and being transported, moved, and entranced just as much the second time around.

Anne:  Welcome to the Word Wenches, Juliet. Most of your books involve the re-imagining or re-exploring of fairy tales, woven into an ancient Celtic background, with an added touch of magic. Why do fairy tales appeal so strongly?

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What We Are Reading

ReaderCara/ Andrea here, It’s time for our monthly What We Are Reading post, and it seems as the new season gets ready to kick in (beach reads here in the northern hemisphere, while Down Under it’s curling up under a woolly blanket), we’ve all been exploring outside our usual genres—so be prepared for some different types of recommendations! (Both Jo and Nicola have been enjoying some traveling, so they promise to report on all the books that were tucked in their suitcases next month.)

Mary Jo: Something a little different this time!  Among the Hugo nominees for the best science fiction or fantasy novel of 2014 is a book called The Goblin Emperor by Katherine Addison, whom I've never heard of.  (I later learned it's a pseudonym for Sarah Monette, whom I have heard of but haven't read.)

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An interview with Anna Jacobs

Cat 243 Doverby Mary Jo

I’m delighted to have my friend Anna Jacobs as a guest today.  Anna’s books aren’t well known in the US, but in Britain and Australia, she’s a bestseller as well as one of the most borrowed authors in both countries’ library systems.  (And this matters, since unlike the US, authors earn money from multiple book borrowings under the Public Lending Rights schemes.)

Anna is remarkably versatile, having started in fantasy under the name Shannah Jay.  (Those novels are now available as e-books.) 

 More recently she's written many historical novels as well as a number of contemporaries.  Her stories are classified as “romantic” rather than “romances;” in the American genre classifications, they’d probably be considered women’s fiction. 

She’s known for her happy endings (warm fuzzies is how she describes it) and in this day of e-books and free shipping from www.bookdepository.com her books are available world wide.  So—over to Anna Jacobs!

TradersSistersmallerMJP: Let’s start with the present and work back.  Just this week, you have a new historical release called The Trader’s Sister.  Can you tell us something about this book, and about the series of which it’s book 2?

AJ: The four-part Traders series is set in Western Australia, the Orient and Ireland from the mid 1860s to the early 1870s (all of them make sense as single stories, too). I live in Western Australia and I felt its history had been neglected compared to Sydney and the eastern side of Australia, so I’m personally remedying that – and giving readers stories that are a bit different, I hope.

The Trader in question is Bram Deagan, a former groom from Ireland who has risked all to set up as a trader, bringing goods from Singapore to Western Australia. He’s the hero of Book 1. The Trader’s Wife, and is present in all books in the series, but is not the hero of the others. He’s my favourite hero out of all the books I’ve written.

The Trader’s Sister tells the story of Ismay Deagan. When her father tries to force her to marry a brutal man, she runs away from Ireland to join her brother in Australia. She meets Adam Tregear on the ship and finally starts to believe her dreams of future happiness may come true.

Before she reaches Australia, however, they’re flung into danger in Suez, Ceylon and Singapore. Dare she tell Adam the truth about who she really is? Does he have secrets of his own? And will her past catch up with her and ruin her new-found happiness?

I’ve loved researching this series. #3, The Trader’s Dream is about Bram’s young aunt Maura, and we sail with her in the flotilla of ships that passed through the Suez Canal at its opening. I’d been waiting ten years to put that incident into a book.

You can read the first chapters of all my books on my website plus information available nowhere else. The Trader’s Sister is at: http://www.annajacobs.com/book.aspx?title=The-Traders-Sister&bookID=64

 MJP: You got your start in historical novels in the “clogs and shawls” style for which Catherine Cookson was known.  (And perhaps she invented it.)  Can you tell us more about that genre?

AJ: I got a false start first with a regency romance called Persons of Rank, which won a $10,000 prize. But that led nowhere as the publisher’s management changed what it was doing.

I got my real start by writing ‘sagas’ (UK style) and ‘clogs and shawls’ is one type of saga. They always involve a working class woman battling the odds – and winning! There’s always a romance, but the stories have several subplots as well as the main one. Authors who write sagas try very hard to get their history right, because UK readers are sticklers about the details and enjoy ‘tasting’ daily life of the times. Sagas usually have a strong regional base, so each saga writer is known for a particular region.

That doesn’t mean the books are overloaded with historical information. My goodness, no! They’re about characters and their relationships above all, with a happy ending romance between main hero and heroine. I sometimes have two or three romances in a book, though. I can’t leave my nice minor characters unhappy, can I? And what is happier than finding true love?

Sagas have been a top-selling genre in the UK for many decades and they’re still going strong. I’m writing sagas for two publishers, both under my Anna Jacobs name. For my main publisher that’s moved towards Aussie historicals; for the other I still write traditional sagas – set mainly in Wiltshire.

 MJP: Your historicals have evolved over the years.  Could you tell us more about that?

AJ: I started off not even knowing I was writing a saga (pre-Internet, less information about). I wanted to write a book about the other people in a Lancashire mill town, not those who work in the mill or wear clogs and shawls. (When I was at school, we so looked down on children who wore clogs!)

So I wrote Salem Street, first in the five-part Gibson Family Saga, a rags to riches tale set in my home county of Lancashire. It was published in 1994 and is still being reprinted regularly.  It’s my best-selling series of all, and is now in ebook format as well as in paper books.

After a few years, since I had moved to Australia, I wanted to try an Aussie (pronounced Ozzee) saga. My publisher was doubtful but gave it a go with Lancashire Lass. It sold really well, so they continued to let me write an occasional Aussie tale. Then the Aussie branch of my publisher got involved and began publishing its own editions, so I write only Aussie tales for them now. I’m loving it. More importantly, so are my readers.

I had also written some historical romances for another publisher in my early days and they’re now out as ebooks. They aren’t like US romances, because they have a stronger, non-romance story line and several sub-plots, but they’re closer to romance than to sagas. One of them, Mistress of Marymoor, is my bestselling ebook of all. It’s a gothic tale set in 1759, with the heroine making a marriage of convenience in order to inherit a house on the edge of the moors, and having to cope with plots against her and her new husband.

WindsofChangesmallestAnd as Mary Jo said, I also write modern ‘women’s fiction’, which is actually starting to sell in the USA. The variety of stories is one thing that keeps me fresh and interested. My latest modern novel Winds of Change, set in both Australia and the UK, and was published in March. Here's an excerpt of the first chapter.  

MJP: On a more personal note, you’re a citizen of two nations—born and raised in the UK, emigrated to Australia, and you now have homes in both countries.  Many British citizens emigrate to other countries for opportunities, particularly the old Empire nations of Australia, New Zealand, and Canada.  And often they later return to their homelands, as our Jo Beverley has done after decades in Canada.  Could you tell us more about this?  And about the joys and complications of living in two countries?

AustraliaAJ:  We emigrated to Australia in our 30s, with our two young children, and we love living here. We have a house on the water’s edge, where dolphins swim past regularly, and several sorts of parrot fly around our garden. It’s wonderful. But we also love the UK because it has the history and the lush beauty of landscape you don’t get in a much drier and younger country. But we couldn’t cope with the winters and snow (shudder) which were partly why we emigrated. We saved money carefully to buy a second home in the UK.

It’s hard work living in two countries, though. You have to prepare one house to leave – and do a lot of shopping when you arrive to open up the other house. I have to move an ‘office’ as well.

We start preparing for the next change-over the day after a move. Some things are better in each country, so we transport them. Would you believe it, we take our plastic food storage bags from Australia? I know that sounds silly, but they’re so much better. And the Aussies have a truly efficient opener for glass jars of food – we’ve taken several over as presents for family in the UK. We bring things from the UK as well. I love Marks & Spencer underclothes, for instance, and they have much nicer skirts in the UK. I could go on – and on – but you get the idea. It’s amazing what details make life pleasanter.

The flight itself takes 20 hours and is exhausting. I simply cannot sleep on planes, even in business class. It takes me two and a half novels to get through that flight. And about one flight in eight there are problems and delays, so we have to hang around airports or even spend a night somewhere as a new plane is brought. I consider flying the price I pay for a wonderfully rich life.

We both have family in the UK, a sister each above all, and Dave’s mother is still alive at 92. It’s been wonderful reconnecting with our siblings and their children. I’ve even forgiven my nieces for turning me into a great-aunt. (Doesn’t that sound old? How dare they?) And then there’s research and PR and business with my three UK publishers. Lots to do in each country.

 MJP: You’re a very prolific writer, usually doing three fairly lengthy novels a years.  You refer to yourself as a writing addict.  Could you tell us more about that?  (And if it’s contagious, where can I catch it?!!)

AJ: I’m very lucky. I was born without the housekeeping gene, so don’t waste my time on ironing and dusting, and have always paid someone else to do the housework. I focus on what I love most – telling stories. I’m not robust physically, because I have a bad back, I’ve never been good at sport anyway (pitiful, actually) and I don’t enjoy travelling, so what does that leave? Writing or as I think of it, story telling. Oh, and reading, too. I read at least three novels a week.

I’ve found I can write a better story if I push myself on as quickly as possible, then polish it carefully afterwards, so that’s how I work. After 57 novels published, I’m getting faster.

And then there are the characters. It’s partly their fault that I write a lot of stories. Characters from my next book come and haunt me in the half-awake time just before dawn and show me scenes from their stories, demanding to have the story told now, this minute. So I have to hurry up and finish the current book.  That’s my excuse anyway.

Oh, and don’t forget the lovely readers, who want more than three novels a year and write me delightful emails. I can’t do more than three, though. I have a life outside writing and like to spend the evenings with my own personal hero, our daughters and our grandson. And anyway, my imagination fades as the sun sets, I don’t know why.

Really, my life is like anyone else’s. I work hard and that’s how I produce the books.

 I’d like to thank Mary Jo and the Word Wenches for having me on their blog. What a great bunch of writers they are! I hope you’ve found my views of the world interesting. You can find more information on my website at http://www.annajacobs.com

Happy reading!

TradersSistersmallerMJP: Anna, thanks so much for visiting us and broadening our view of historical novels! 

Anna will give a copy of The Trader's Wife to someone who comments between now and midnight Tuesday, so comment away!  Feel free to ask questions about the sorts of books Anna writes.  (But she's on the other side of the world, so she'll be checking in at different times from those of us in this hemisphere!)


Mary Jo