What We’re Reading

Pat here, bringing you this month’s hopelessly erratic and eclectic list of what we’ve read and enjoyed lately. I’ve been having fun with earlier Wench recommendations but not finding much new that's interesting. So all I can present to you are a couple of not-quite-cozy mysteries, nary a knitting group or book club among them.

Your chariotYOUR CHARIOT AWAITS by Lorena McCourtney is a rollicking mystery that doesn’t rely on a small town setting but has great characters, a limousine, a pregnant neighbor, and a dead boyfriend. I’ve been skipping through the middles on every mystery I’ve read lately, but not this one. McCourtney keeps me highly entertained all the way through. Even the limo has a personality by the end. Cleverly crafted, and I didn’t guess whodunit until almost the end.

THE POT THIEF WHO STUDIED EINSTEIN by J. Michael Orenduff : OK, I bought this one for the title and maybe the setting. The protagonist sells Anasazi pots, which he might just occasionally dig up without reporting because if no one knows they’re there, who’s he hurting, right? So it’s that kind of morality directing the mystery—someone conned him out of his rightful money, so it’s okay to break into that someone’s house, even if he’s not entirely certain he’s in the right house. Albuquerque is a great setting. The protag’s best friend is a winner with some really good lines. And I really didn’t care who killed whom but enjoyed the ride.

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The Bitter East End

 

Dore dancing

Just a block party, really

Joanna here.

I set a novella in East London recently. It got me thinking about how we see what is unfamiliar as a dire, strange, dangerous place. Especially if it is, like, dire and dangerous.

I'm thinking of the bad parts of cities, mostly, which is by no means a new idea. They probably had good and bad sections of the early mud daub and wattle villages of the Bronze Age farmers.

London’s East End — Seven Dials, Whitechapel, and so on — in the period in which I’ve been writing, was just a horrific slum, full of crime and disease, with the added bonus of various shady characters who would as soon knock you over the head as look at you.

Here’s a Victorian account of travelling into deepest Whitechapel:

We dismiss our cab: it would be useless in the strange, dark byeways, to which we are bound: natives of which will look upon us as the Japanese looked upon us the first European travellers in the streets of Jeddo. The missionary, the parish doctor, the rent collector (who must be a bold man indeed), the policeman, the detective, and the humble undertaker, are the human beings from without who enter this weird and horrible Bluegate Fields. 

We arrived at Whitechapel Police Station, to pick up the superintendent of savage London. He had some poor specimens — maundering drunk — in his cells already — and it was hardly nine o'clock. 

High_change_in_bond_street 2_or__hi

Bond Street, not nearly as cool as you think

We plunge into a maze of courts and narrow streets of low houses — nearly all the doors of which are open, showing kitchen fires blazing far in the interior, and strange figures moving about. 

At dark corners, lurking men keep close to the wall; and the police smile when we wonder what would become of a lonely wanderer who should find himself in these regions unprotected. "He would be stripped to his shirt" was the candid answer — made while we threaded an extraordinary tangle of dark alleys where two men could just walk abreast, under the flickering lamps jutting from the ebon walls, to mark the corners.
Jerrold Blanchard, London: A Pilgrimage 1872 

Sounds pretty grim, does it not? Living there was doubtless a bit of a challenge for our great-great-greats who lived there. Also for those who inhabited the slums of New York or Washington,D.C., or the seedier parts of Berlin or Naples. Though at least it would have been warm in Naples.

 

Slum-eating

Wild times in the Regency slums

But let me get up on one of my hobbyhorses here. (jo climbs up, holding her skirts carefully so nobody gets a flash look at her ankles.)

The most important thing about the rookeries of London in 1802 — and the Roman tenements in 79 AD and the slums of SE Washington DC in 1960 — is that the denizens of the place were 'at home'.  For them it wasn't a landscape of horror. 

Those men and women were ordinary folk.  Living in these stacked-up, decrepit buildings and dirty streets were ordinary, well-meaning, hard-working people, not monsters.  The violent gangs hanging out on street corners were a dangerous minority who preyed on and were hated by everyone else.

I keep this on one side of my mind when I’m writing about my dicey Regency people.

When the heroine makes a wrong turn and ends up in a bad neighborhood, she hasn't fallen into a pit of vipers. Those people passing her on the narrow slum street and the ones living three flights up in those poorly repaired buildings are no better nor worse than the everyday folks she passes in Mayfair. Her maidservant grew up a block to the left. Her cook has a brother living down at the end of the alley. That's where the cook goes every Sunday on her day off Your heroine's problem is not that the streets are populated with slavering hyenas. It's that she's conspicuous. 

Here I am in My Lord and Spymaster trying to show the heroine as someone who comes from the mean streets, who understands them, who recognizes the dangers but doesn't see the place as a filthy hell filled with maniacal demons.

 

Girls

That's me in some past life

I think, both as writers and as readers, we have to look past the Victorian descriptions and illustrations of the poorer quarters. Every historical representation of these is by someone from outside, making a point. The contemporary writer or painter says as much about himself as about what he's reporting.  Hogarth's Gin Lane is propaganda. Propaganda from the good guys, but still, a selection of detail to make a point.

So I walk my 1802 or 1766 heroine into the rougher sections of town. Some of them are at home there and some of them are not. But I try not to always assume the alley is a seething cauldron of evil into which she had incautiously been tipped.

Those filthy and villainous women — no better than they should be — eyeing my heroine as she cringes along her way … I suspect those were my ancestors, not the rich lord who's about to rescue her. I can just see myself scratching my nose and summing up the value of the heroine's ensemble, wondering if I can make off with it.

So what about you? Any preference for villainous ancestors over more respectable ones?

Or … do you know?

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Ask A Wench: Why We Write Historical Romance

Timothy-dalton-as-heathcliffPat here with today’s Ask A Wench "Why do we write historicals and not contemporaries?" 

I can’t say that I don’t want to write contemporaries since I have, but historicals are my main love. I researched contemporary subjects for the contemporaries, but researching a town or a career isn’t quite the same as digging into the culture and politics of two hundred years ago. I can put my 1830 people on the cutting edge of industry and inventions and know those industries and inventions won’t be outdated tomorrow, they’ll always be fixed in 1830. But if I write, as I have, about a techie in the 21st century who uses the latest greatest device, a thumb drive—by the next year, that book is completely outdated. And man, cell phones really ruin suspense!

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What We’re Reading in June

Hi. Joanna here. It's a great line-up this month.

Wench burnable book holsinger 2Andrea/Cara first up:

I’m a sucker for historical mysteries, especially ones that ihave arcane books involved in the plot. So when I happened to read a blurb on this, I couldn’t resist. But before I go on, I have a confession to make: I’ve been madly scrambling to finish a project, so haven’t had quite as much time for reading as usual. So I’m not all that far along in this book, but am liking it enough to recommend it. 

The Burnable Book. Here’s the lead blurb on the cover flap: In Chaucer's London, betrayal, murder, royal intrigue, mystery, and dangerous politics swirl around the existence of a prophetic book that foretells the deaths of England's kings.

Maybe you can see right away why I was hooked. The author, Bruce Holsinger, is a professor of Medieval History, and already the ambiance of London—from the court intrigues to the stews—is really well-done. The style is a little edgy, but I’m liking the main protagonist a lot. A friend of Geoffrey Chaucer, and fellow poet, John Gower has been asked to find a stolen book that may bring down the monarchy. If you’re looking to immerse  yourself in London of Richard II, come join me in turning the pages!

And, with a wonderful, comforting set of books, Mary Jo: Wench Copper Beach

When I'm deep into writing a new book, I often reread comfort books because I know I'll enjoy them and there isn't the stress of hunting down new books and maybe not finding something I like.  So–currently rereading Jayne Ann Krentz romantic suspense novels.  I love her Arcane series, where characters have paranormal, psychic type abilities that are both blessing and curse.  WHITE LIES is a particular favorite, where the heroine can always tell if someone is lying.  This is a decidedly mixed blessing.  <G>

But my current reread is the Dark Legacy duo, COPPER BEACH and DREAM EYES.  JAK seldom does families, but the heroes of these two books are brothers, which is fun.  Sam Coppersmith, hero of Copper Beach, is the lab guy who is a genius at manipulating crystal energy.  When paranormal book finder Abby Radwell needs help, she is sent to him and sparks fly.  Quite literally. <G>

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What We’re Reading in September

September is a grand month for reading. We've come up with some great suggestions.

 
Wench shamelessAnne here: I've been really enjoying some NA (New Adult) college stories. I've mentioned Sarina Bowen in this column several times and now I'll add Elle Kennedy to the list — they've written a few book together, which is how I discovered Elle Kennedy. Both these authors are writing fresh, fun, yet realistic stories that deal with some very serious issues faced by young people at that age, while still remaining very sexy and romantic. 
 
The Shameless Hour – Sarina Bowen
Bella gets around — she's a bright, positive, lusty girl. Rafe is a hunky Hispanic boy who has been raised to respect women — which is why he's still a virgin at 20. When the double standard smacks Bella down in the nastiest way, Rafe steps in. A gorgeous story, both realistic and romantic and positive.
 
The Deal  Elle Kennedy
Another NA story set on a college campus. Hannah Wells has a crush on one guy, but an annoyingly persistent jock is after her to tutor him. They do a deal to help each other achieve their goals.
I couldn't put it down. Really enjoyed it.
 
Pat Rice brings us:
 
Wenches NeanderthalNeanderthal Seeks Human: A Smart Romance, is the first book written by Penny Reid. I love the brain-heavy, neurotic heroine—who has every right to be neurotic given her dysfunctional family. It’s totally a contemporary fantasy but the author’s voice is so hilarious that I kept reading anyway. Sure, it could use a lot of trimming, but who would want to trim material that contains (and I’ve seriously edited here) lines like this: “I think my alcohol-saturated forebrain lost the ability of conscious thought, but my lower brain—the Id…may have slipped my forebrain some benzodiazeprines…. I will call that part of my brain Ida.”

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