What We Are Reading- June

It’s that time of the month again when we share what we’ve been reading lately! So grab a pencil and paper and be prepared to add to your already towering TBR piles. (Because, y’know, one can never have too many good books at hand!)

Christina: GIRL, GODDESS, QUEEN by Bea Fitzgerald – If you like Greek myths and tales of the gods of Olympus, this book is for you! It’s a YA fantasy re-imagining of the story of Hades and Persephone, and it kept me spellbound throughout. According to the original tale, Persephone, the sweet daughter of the goddess Demeter, was kidnapped by Hades, King of the Underworld, and tricked into wanting to remain in his realm, but in this retelling, the story is quite different. Here, Persephone is no longer portrayed as a meek little maiden, but a girl who knows her own mind and is a lot stronger than she (and everyone else) thinks. Her mother and father – Zeus, king of all the gods – are planning on marrying her off to the highest bidder, but Persephone wants no part of this. She’s always been terrified of marriage and the thought of being tied to some smug Olympian god she hasn’t even chosen herself is abhorrent to her. So desperate is she to escape this fate that she jumps into the Underworld and claims sanctuary/hospitality – xenia – from Hades. What she hadn’t expected – nor he for that matter – was the undeniable attraction between them, and the unlikely friendship that develops. Hades is rude, sexy and arrogant, but also kind, and he’s the only person who’s ever actually listened to what Persephone wants. When he proposes a marriage of convenience, how bad can it be? [This book won the RNA’s Fantasy Romantic Book of the Year last month – well deserved!]

NOT IN LOVE by Ali Hazelwood – This is another of Ms Hazelwood’s signature stories featuring a STEM heroine who works as a biotech engineer in the field of food science. She’s brilliant at what she does, but socially awkward with very few friends and no romantic relationships – ever. (I guessed she was autistic or on the spectrum somewhere but this is never actually spelled out in the book). When she meets the hero after a match-up on a dating app, there is instant chemistry and he gets her like no one else ever has. She finds herself breaking her own rules for him, while they both try to fight the attraction. They’ve been hurt in the past (in different ways) and are reluctant to trust, but they can’t seem to stay away from each other. Can they learn to love? Or is their baggage too much? I really enjoyed this story and found it fascinating, especially the way the hero allows and encourages the heroine to be exactly who she is without trying to change her. It’s very spicy and explicit – the author herself calls it erotic romance – but the underlying story is wonderful so I didn’t mind that. Highly recommended!

Finally I have to mention THE SUMMER SWAP by Sarah Morgan – Following on from Nicola’s endorsement last month, I want to add mine. As always Ms Morgan has written a fabulous story featuring three generations of women, all with their own problems and dilemmas. They have come to a turning point in their lives where they must choose how to go forward. Changing career path when you know what you’re currently doing is destroying you emotionally, moving forward after grief, and dealing with betrayal are some of the themes covered. I read this in one sitting and now want to read it again!

Pat: THE MOSTLY TRUE STORY OF TANNER AND LOUISE, by Colleen Oakley: I read this while traveling and couldn’t immediately jot down my review notes, so I’m relying on the book description. I just know I loved the book so much, I remembered to write this once I got home. The writing dragged me into the crazy story and didn’t let go, which is highly unusual for me. Basically, it’s the story of a college dropout and an eighty-four-year-old woman whose grown children believe she can no longer take care of herself. Her children really, really don’t know her. This grandma packs a lot of guts and ingenuity, and surprisingly, the depressed, video-playing nanny assigned to take care of her learns that there is more to life than staring at a TV.
Together—if they can outrun the mistakes of their past—they share the greatest adventure of their lives.

THE BANNED BOOKSHOP OF MAGGIE BANKS by Shauna Robinson: Obviously, bookshops are trending. Every other book I pick up includes one. They’re even better than small towns because we can put all the people in one building (oh wait, I’m doing that with the Gravesyde Priory series—with a manor library, oops). So the bookshop in this story is practically a museum for the small town of Bell River, founded on the writing of the famed author no one has ever heard of, Edward Bell. Needless to say, the shop is dying since it doesn’t sell any book written after the author’s death in 1968. Maggie, the book’s heroine is recruited to run the shop while the owner takes maternity leave. Maggie doesn’t read much. She loves talking to people and creating fun—the exact opposite of how the Bell Society’s operator sees his operation. Maggie is pretty much fireworks and confetti in a graveyard. There’s a romance, with a guy so strait-laced he can’t unbend. The plotline is straight up obvious. But the characters and events are so much fun, who cares? Predictability can be reassuring. So just step into Bell River and let Maggie lead the way…

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What We Are Reading-April

Christina: Their Castilian Orphan by Anna Belfrage is the epic conclusion to this amazing historical series and I was eager to see how things would play out in the end. It sees the return of the hero’s truly vile stepbrother, whose presence hangs like a threatening cloud of doom over the story, keeping you on the edge of your seat. And as always, there is a lot at stake for Robert and Noor d’Outremer and their family in every way. Ms Belfrage immerses the reader in the era (late 13th century Britain), bringing it to life effortlessly. It is clear that she’s done a huge amount of research, although this is never rammed down your throat, but subtly woven into the narrative. You really feel you’re there, in the drafty castles, in a damp tent on military campaign, or riding through the mist towards a Welsh manor – it’s all beautifully depicted. And the characters are wonderful, making you root for them and wish them to have a happy ending. There were some heart-rending moments which actually made me cry – that doesn’t happen often when I read – but overall it’s a very satisfying read. If you haven’t started this series yet, go and buy His Castilian Hawk and begin the journey – I can thoroughly recommend this to all lovers of history and romance!

I also just want to do a quick shout-out for the latest installment in Patricia Rice’s Gravesyde Priory Mysteries (No 3) – The Bones In The Orchard. I won’t give a summary as that might ruin the mystery and suspense, but I just want to say if you haven’t started this series yet, hurry up and do so! I’m loving the mix of Regency romance and sleuthing, and the unusual setting (out in the countryside rather than the ballrooms of London) is a very refreshing change. Already looking forward to the next one!

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What We Are Reading!

This month's What We Are Reading features a wonderful array of delights, including a lovely selection of traditional holiday stories, a Viking timeslip and thrilling real-life historical  adventures. Remember that books make marvelous presents—and be sure to treat yourself  . . . because Santa thinks we all deserve some comforts to end a very difficult year. So curl with a good book this holiday season and stay safe and well! Now on to the treats!

Christmas WishesPia: Last year I travelled to Sweden with my friend Sue Moorcroft because she wanted to do some background research for a Christmas story and I was very happy to show her around. We had great fun and I’ve been eagerly awaiting the resulting book – I wasn’t disappointed! Christmas Wishes is a wonderful festive tale, partly set in my native country and partly in a little English village. The heroine, Hannah, has been living and working in Sweden, where she has her own shop in Gamla Stan (the old town) in Stockholm. It’s not doing as well as she would like and things are not going great with her Swedish boyfriend either, but when she runs into her teenage crush, Swedish Nico Pettersson, her life begins to change. Nico has big problems of his own as a single father, with an ex-wife who is battling depression and drug dependency, and a tiny step-daughter who needs him as much as his biological daughter does. As his world unravels, he is forced to take some drastic measures in order to cope, and in addition he has a secret he doesn’t like to share with anyone either. I loved this story, and I was rooting for these two characters all the way. The snow, the Christmas cheer and the many festive customs and touches from both countries add loads of charm, as do the two little girls. Nico is the kind of hero you can’t help but fall in love with and I definitely did! The best Christmas story I’ve read in a long time!

To Catch a King by Charles Spencer is historical non-fiction at its best! Earl Spencer is a master at telling a story at the same time as imparting all the pertinent facts and that makes for a thrilling read. The tale of how the future King Charles II escaped his enemies after losing the battle of Worcester is so fantastic it could actually have made a great fictional story. On the run through ten of England’s counties for six weeks, Charles had to improvise and trust those who were firm royalists. His life was in constant danger and with a price of £1,000 on his head (an enormous sum at the time!), there were many people who wouldn’t have hesitated to turn him over to the authorities. Lord Wilmot, his constant companion, was a flamboyant man who ran many risks during those weeks, but seemed to be born under a lucky star. Charles himself was more circumspect and donned several different disguises, as well as suffering hardships such as walking for miles in shoes that chafed his feet raw. He proved to be resourceful, quick-thinking and incredibly courageous. This, as well as his innate charm to everyone he met, proved part of his salvation. Reading this tale, one can’t but cheer him on and rejoice as he finally set sail for France and safety. And there is huge satisfaction in hearing about the rewards he gave those who helped him, as well as his revenge on those who had sought to end his life. This is highly recommended for anyone who enjoys history and especially from the Stuart era.

ChristmasbridePat: For fans of satirical sf/f, Douglas Adams, and Neil Gaiman, Carpet Diem: Or How to Save The World by Accident by Justin Lee Anderson is a mad trip into an earthly world caught between heaven and hell. Simon Debovar hates people. He’s the ultimate introverted hermit. He doesn’t even have to put up with family because all of them, except his great-aunt and one cousin, were blown up at a family reunion. He inherited everything, including a rug that apparently heaven and hell have made a wager on. In Simon’s world, the devil is a female, represented by a female demon, and our heavenly father is a domineering, uptight male god, represented by a male angel. The carpet could very well be the end of the world, unless Simon and the mostly clueless and wildly irreverent crew he grudgingly collects can find a way to keep heaven and hell from winning it. I am on a violence avoidance kick and even though Simon and his crew are threatened with every conceivable kind of death and nearly killed over and over—no one ever dies, even the villain with his head off. Read it as a rollicking adventure. If there’s a moral to the story, I don’t want to know what it is.

My second report is on a novella meant for savoring, our own Anne Gracie's The Christmas Bride. I know you've heard about it from us before but I just wanted to pitch my praises. I love this novella. It has all the wonderful Gracie trademarks–a heroine in trouble, a hero who can help her but not himself, and lovely, lovely romance with the added fun of children, brides, and a duck. For extra reading pleasure, we also have a glimpse of the Chance sisters from a previous series and a great manor house Christmas holiday! It's just a perfect confection for a cozy evening by the fire (or for those down under, a day at the beach).

The Runes of DestinyLAndrea: I was lucky enough to get an advance copy of our own Christina Courtenay’s new Viking timeslip, The Runes of Destiny, which releases on December 10! (One of the many wonderful things about being a Wench is we often share our books with each other before the official release.) I just loved it—it’s a marvelous combination of a captivating love story and enthralling history. . . and had me staying up way too late as it that swept me along in a magical journey.

Linnea Berger, a specialist in ancient Norse languages, is taking refuge from the emotional trauma of a recent car accident by working at a summer archeological dig. Because she’s spooked by the idea of digging up bones, she’s sent to a deserted field with a metal detector, and discovers a magnificent silver brooch . . only prick her finger and pass out. When she awakes, she surrounded by a band of men in Viking dress—led by the hunky Hrafn, who promptly informs her that she is now his captive. Thinking they are Viking reenactors, she plays along for a bit . . . until it becomes shockingly clear that she’s somehow been transported to the ninth century.

Initial panics gives way to logic. The brooch must have brought her here, so perhaps it can take her back. The only problem is it belongs to Hrafn’s horrible half brother, and the only way to have a chance of getting her hands on it is to go along with their plan to take her with them on a long and perilous trading journey to the city we know as Constantinople—where Hrafn intends to sell her as a thrall.

The journey is absolutely riveting. Christina’s meticulous descriptions—the river journey through Russia, the trading towns, the details of everyday life and the dangers the party faces—really makes history. But even more compelling is how she develops a friendship between Linnea and Hrafn based on mutual respect for each other’s courage and moral principles, sentiments that soon develop into something way more complicated. And as they reach Constantinople, there are some very difficult decisions to face . . . Fix a cup of hot chocolate, snuggle into a comfy chair and escape into a thrilling and heartwarming adventure!

I also got the chance to read Anne's new Christmas novella, The Christmas Bride, and echo Pat's praises. It's absolutely delightful, with wonderfully engaging characters . . .and a little brother of the heroine who will steal your heart!

Jane Austen's best friendNicola: This month I picked up The Rebel Heiress and the Knight by Melissa Oliver, which recently won the Romantic Novelists' Association Joan Hessayon Award for best debut novel. I'm partial to a bit of medieval romance and this story, set in the reign of King John, was a great combination of adventure and romance. Eleanor, the heroine, has been widowed after an abusive marriage and when the King decrees she should marry Hugh de Villiers she's pretty horrified. Hugh isn't thrilled either as he hadn't planned on getting married at all, least of all to Eleanor, whom he finds standoffish and arrogant.
The journey these two characters make through respect and admiration to love is at the emotional heart of the story, with Hugh recognising the scars from Eleanor's first marriage and wooing her gently. There's also a fun adventure story mixed in as Hugh tries to track down the outlaws who have been causing mayhem in the local area and who keep giving him the run around… All in all it was a very enjoyable and romantic read!
I also read Jane Austen's Best Friend by Zoe Wheddon, which is a biography of Martha Lloyd and examines the long and close friendship between Martha and Jane over many decades. I wasn't sure I was going to enjoy it to start with because it kept talking about BFFs and seemed to be trying too hard to use modern concepts and parlance to describe the friendship, but when the book got down to details it was fascinating. I particularly liked the way that it examined the relationship between the two friends through different aspects of their lives – everything from fashion, to socialising, to Jane's writing. It was an interesting approach and let us get to know Martha as well as to see Jane in a different way. The book is up for pre-order and out next year.

The FlatshareMary Jo: Some months back, there were recommendations here to read Beth O'Leary's The Flatshare. (I think Anne Gracie first called the book to our attention–I'm one of several people who read and loved it.)  It was a clever story of a man and woman sharing a flat but never seeing each other because he works nights and she works days. But they write  each other notes….  It's called a romantic comedy, but with more than the usual number of layers.  

O'Leary's much anticipated second book, The Switch, had big boots to fill, and she succeeds beautifully.  Leena lives a fast paced, high stress in life in London while her much loved  79 year old grandmother, Eileen, lives in a village in Yorkshire, lonely and yearning for more out of life.  When Leena is ordered to take two months off work to rest up, she goes to visit Eileen–and comes up with the idea of the two of them swapping their homes for two months.  Eileen can live with Leena's hip young flatmates, and Leena can relax in her grandmother's charming cottage and garden.  

 Naturally things are not that simple.  The book is funny and romantic, but the beating heart of the story is the earlier loss of Leena's sister to cancer, a tragedy that devastated Leena, her mother, and her grandmother, so the subtext is growth and reconciliation as well as new chances for love.  A great read with a thoroughly satisfying resolution! 
ChristmasRevelsAnne: For some reason, this month I've been doing a lot of rereading. I have plenty of new books waiting in the TBR pile, but instead, I've gravitated to old books I know I will enjoy, even for the second (or third or fifth) time around. 

While I was waiting for the US election results (and also waiting for my novella to come out) I started reading old favorite Christmas stories, some of whom were by the Wenches. MJP's lovely collection in Christmas Revels (5 excellent stories—4 historical and 1 contemporary—in one anthology), Pat Rice's Tin Angel, some of Mary Balogh's Christmas stories and others, not forgetting the Wenchly Christmas anthology (The Last Chance Christmas Ball) I usually reread Trisha Ashley's Twelve Days of Christmas but I haven't yet. I have however reread her Invitation to Christmas, which is a favorite too, and that sparked a reread of several other of her books. 

I also read (new) Jenny Colgan's Christmas at the Island Hotel, and enjoyed it very much. It has rather a large case of characters and though I think you could read it as a stand-alone, it would probably be better if you'd read the others in the series. In other rereads, I enjoyed Nancy Warren's Toni Diamond series, where Toni, a larger than-life character is a makeup consultant who gets involved in murder mysteries. Lots of fun, and I'm sad there are only four books in the series. Another series I wish were longer is Ilona Andrews' Innkeeper series, and I reread that whole series, too. Next I think I'll reread either one of Sharon Shinn's series, or maybe one by Patricia Briggs

Now, let keep adding to the TBR pile! What have YOU all been reading lately? Please share!