Ask a Wench

Christina here with this month’s ASK A WENCH and today the question we are answering is:-

“Do you reread books you enjoyed 20 years ago or do you prefer to just let them be a happy memory in case they’ve dated badly?”

Pat:  I don’t re-read anything much. My TBR stack is toppling as is. But sometimes, I need a comfort read before bed, preferably in paper. Unfortunately, I had to leave all my romance Keepers behind when I moved. At the time, I tried to dive into the shelves and look for favorites to bring with me, but many of them were dated and didn’t suck me in as they once had. I think that’s more a problem of having read way too many similar books for years afterward, as publishers tend to produce books similar to the original bestsellers until the imitations quit selling. Kind of wears out the originality and the reason for re-reading.

But because my husband and I both read Terry Pratchett, and he won’t give up anything, we have the entire collection of Pratchett books. When we first bought them, I read in order of purchase, well after the Disc World series had started. This past year, I started with the first in the series, and I’ve been working my way through the entire collection in order. They definitely stand up to the test of time, because of their originality. No one can write humor or create worlds like Pratchett. I’m not sure what I’ll do when those run out!

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What We’re Reading

Christina here with this month’s roundup of what the Wenches have been reading. We have lots of lovely recommendations this time and I hope there’s something for everyone. See what you think!

I’ll start with my ownI have loved all Kylie Scott’s books so far and THE LAST DAYS OF LILAH GOODLUCK was no exception! The heroine, Lilah, is a curvy librarian who happens to save the life of a witch when she pulls her out of the way of a crazy car driver. As a thank you, the witch gives her a set of predictions for her future, including the next winning Lotto numbers. Lilah doesn’t believe in magic, but as these predictions start to come true one by one, she begins to change her mind. The only problem is that the final prediction foretold that she was going to die in a week’s time … Naturally, she doesn’t want to believe that one, but does she have a choice? Following Lilah as she decides to live out her last days by doing everything that’s always been on her wish list is great fun. And then there is the charming sort-of-royal Alistair, who is supposedly her soulmate but seems to be way out of her league. The chemistry between them can’t be denied, however, and he was an absolutely fantastic hero. I loved this story and can’t wait for the next one!

It’s been a while since I got excited about a book about vampires and werewolves, but BRIDE by Ali Hazelwood had me hooked right from the first page. The sassy vampire heroine (or vampyre as it’s spelled in this story), who’s survived years of being nothing but a pawn in her father’s power-grabbing machinations, is wonderful. And when she is married off to an alpha werewolf (or just Were in this case) in order to cement an alliance between the two species, things get really interesting. She continually surprises her new husband and his pack, and along the way surprises herself with the way she reacts to certain things. And the love story that builds between these two is phenomenal. Really couldn’t put this down! (Warning: some fairly explicit sex scenes in this one)

Pat:  I am not entirely certain how to describe SKELTON’S GUIDE TO DOMESTIC POISONS by David Stafford. It reads like an old-fashioned mystery from the 1940’s. Since it’s set between the two World Wars, that means the author really has a sense of history because it was actually written in 2020. The protagonist is Arthur Skelton, a 36-year-old barrister based on the life of a real barrister of the period. Arthur has just won a major case with a bit of Perry Mason-like sensibility and has been more or less forced into taking on a high-profile murder case involving a beautiful young housewife. She and her children have been badly abused for years by her husband, who would have been buried without fanfare, except the man’s mother decides to make a murder case of it. We get a lively tour of rural areas near Birmingham, the people in them, including Arthur’s evangelist cousins who act as his local spies. The story is colorful, entertaining, witty, and a lovely puzzle — that doesn’t get solved. I thoroughly enjoyed Arthur and accept his pragmatic take on the results of all his hard work. But a true mystery lover who wants the whole answer and all the clues nailed down will no doubt fling the book across the room. Your call.

And for a totally different offering, there is the ROMANTIC COMEDY by Curtis Sittenfeld. I enjoyed this, despite myself. The protagonist is an almost-forty-year-old skit writer for a TV program resembling Saturday Night Live. She’s been divorced, won Emmys, and while she can be confident about her work, she’s hopeless at a personal life. Truly, irritatingly hopeless and one of those self-sabotaging heroines you want to smack and tell to grow up. But the author steeps us in her work (I now know more about the making of SNL than I ever want to know) and the people around her, and I kept reading. She meets a total hunk rockstar singer (of course), and they hit it off over several comedy sketches. When he attempts to make a personal connection, she cuts him off at the knees, and then Covid happens. But out of sheer boredom, they start emailing each other, and things happen as expected from there. The book is extremely intelligent and introspective, not a typical silly romcom, and the dialogue can be quite funny. They’re both adults and self-aware and I love the way their relationship grows.

Nicola:  This month I’ve been reading my way through the Adair Family series and the Highlands Series by Samantha Young. What’s better than one series of contemporary romantic suspense set in Scotland with incredibly dashing heroes? Yes, that’s right – two series! I actually started with the Highland series and was slightly confused by all the characters until I realised that I needed to go back to the beginning. So then I picked up HERE WITH ME, book 1 of the Adair Family, and got the story from the start. The set up is totally brilliant. A retired Hollywood actor returns home to the Scottish Highlands to take up his inheritance of a grand castle and turn it into an exclusive members’ club. Said actor, Lachlan, is hot. All the Adair brothers (and fortunately there are four of them and a sister) are insanely hot. So are their bodyguards and all their actor friends. I just revelled in the very strong emotional conflicts in each story, applauded the amazing heroines (who were the sort of people I wanted as my friends) and loved the sense of community that the author created around the castle and the village of Ardnoch. Plus, her descriptions of Northern Scotland through the seasons are fabulous. I’m eagerly awaiting the next book in the series which is out in May. One word of warning, the sex scenes are very explicit, as hot as the characters!

And as something totally different, I’m reading THE BANDIT QUEENS by Parini Shroff. Geeta’s life as a widow in her village in India is far preferable to that of a wife. It helps that people believe she murdered her husband and got away with it, as they give her respect for it even if she is an outsider. But then one of the other women in the village decides she also wants to be rid of her drunken, abusive husband and turns to Geeta for help – after all she’s supposed to be the expert! It’s a very funny book, with dark themes and humour mixed together, a real page-turner.

Andrea:  My reading this month has, as usual, encompassed very different genres. First up was an absolute gem of a non-fiction book about a place that is very near and dear to my heart — the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York City, an iconic institution that I have visited since I was a child and helped inspire my love of art and creativity. ALL THE BEAUTY IN THE WORLD by Patrick Bringley is part memoir, part musing on grief and loss, part reflections on the power of art to heal and inspire, and part a delightful inside look on what it’s like to be a guard in that august place! Bringley was a young assistant at The New Yorker magazine when his beloved brother, who was just several years older, died of cancer at age 26. Overwhelmed by grief, he felt he needed to step off his career path and think about Life. Art had always been a source of solace, so he applied to the Met for a job as a gallery guard … The book is a delight! It’s poignant, it’s funny and gives a wonderful inside look at the duties and the wonderful friendships that develop between those quiet, watchful people who few visitors ever stop to notice in the galleries.

I also read THE RUNNING GRAVE, the latest book in Robert Galbraith’s Cormoran Strike mystery series. I’m a huge fan of the books, and this latest one was particularly gripping. I won’t go into a long explanation of the plot, as Galbraith always weaves an intricate web of twists and subplots — including the development of the complicated relationship between Strike and Robin Ellicott, who began the series as his temporary secretary. In this book, Robin has just become his partner in the detective agency, and they have taken on a new case concerning a cult and its charismatic leader. Robin is the natural choice to go undercover into the cult’s idyllic commune … And so the investigation begins, as she and Strike try to figure out whether the place is Good or Evil. Galbraith (aka J.K. Rowling) gives a chilling description of how cults work and I was totally caught up in the story. There’s also some interesting developments between Strike and Robin. If you like complex and twisty mysteries, I highly recommend this series.

Anne:  For a good part of this month I’ve been in a reading slump, but then — thankfully — I read a number of good books. The first was Beth O’Leary’s THE NO-SHOW, which Pat recommended last month. Like her, I won’t try to describe the plot, except that for the first part of the book I thought it was one kind of book and was breathlessly reading on to learn what happened, then then … it wasn’t the story I thought it was. I really loved it and have already recommended it to some friends.

The next one was Mhairi McFarlane’s — BETWEEN US. Roisin and her long time partner Joe, join a group of friends for a weekend away, it’s a triple celebration – a birthday, an engagement and the launch of Joe’s new crime drama on TV. But Roisin has been feeling increasingly distant from Joe and when they watch Joe’s new TV show, she realizes it’s time for a decision. This is women’s fiction, and there is a romance, but it’s billed as “hilarious romantic comedy” and “laugh out loud.” It’s not. It’s a good book and I enjoyed it, but it’s not a comedy.

Another wench recommendation I followed up on was a Christina recommendation for Ali Hazelwood. I started with a fantasy — BRIDE — which I really enjoyed, but book #2 isn’t out yet, so I moved on to her contemporary rom-com THE LOVE HYPOTHESIS which I really loved — romantic and funny. Set in STEM (Science Technology Engineering and Maths) academia which is Ali Hazelwood’s own background. The heroine is a slightly ditsy but very intelligent PHD student, aged 26, who for various reasons becomes the fake girlfriend of a brilliant, but very tough professor. It’s a slow build and I enjoyed every moment.

Lastly, I’ll add to Christina’s endorsement of Kylie Scott’s THE LAST DAYS OF LILAH GOODLUCK. I thoroughly enjoyed it.

Susan:  This month I’ve been in the car a good bit, so listening to some audio is a great way to get through some books. One standout audio for me was THE LAST MRS SUMMERS by Rhys Bowen, narrated by Jasmine Blackborow. I’m gradually making my way through the excellent mystery series called Her Royal Spyness, and while some have captivated me more than others, this is one of the best, I think. Lady Georgiana, a cousin in the royal family, newly married to the very interesting Irishman Darcy O’Mara, and setting up her own household, continues to act as a sleuth when she once more stumbles into a situation where a murder has occurred. This time, Georgiana travels with her dear friend Belinda to Cornwall, where Belinda has inherited a rundown cottage that needs more work than expected. While there, the two ladies encounter Belinda’s friends from years ago, and are invited to stay at the mansion once owned by Belinda’s family – owned now by an old beau of Belinda’s, married to another old friend who seems unhappy in the marriage. Trouble occurs when the husband turns up dead – in Belinda’s bed, when she is adamant she knows nothing of the bloody murder. Georgiana is immediately in the thick of it, determined to help Belinda prove her innocence. Rhys Bowen says the story was inspired by Du Maurier’s Rebecca, and that atmosphere runs all through an outstanding mystery that is eerie, surprising, and not easy to puzzle through. The cast of characters includes a snooty housekeeper who may or may not have a motive, a mysterious carpenter who may or may not be a smuggler, the devastated widow who may or may not have wanted to escape her marriage – Georgie and Belinda face a real challenge in this entry in the series. Jasmine Blackborow delivers an excellent narration and improves book to book. I’m ready for the next in the series!

Mary Jo – with women’s fiction for my February reading. First up is Emilie Richard‘s A FAMILY OF STRANGERS. Richards writes wonderful compassionate stories of women, families, and relationships.  A Family of Strangers might be considered domestic suspense since there’s a mystery at the heart of the story.

Ryan Gracey was the unexpected baby of the family and she grew up in the shadow of her dazzling, much older sister Wendy, who was the golden girl with the perfect life and the perfect family. Ryan followed her own path into journalism and is now hosting a successful true crime podcast that delves into cold cases. So it’s a shock when a desperate Wendy calls and says that she had been near a murder and can’t come home for fear of being arrested though she’s innocent. Will Ryan move to their mutual home town and take care of her two young daughters until it’s safe for Wendy to come home? And can Ryan use her investigative skills to find the man who Wendy believes is the real murderer?

Shocked, Ryan agrees and moves across Florida to her home town, where her father is recovering from heart surgery. Ryan doesn’t know her nieces well and finds them to be rather unnervingly well behaved. She struggles to connect with them while holding off her parents’ inquiries about why Wendy hasn’t called them directly. As Ryan tries to find the missing man her sister wants, she begins to wonder how well she really knows Wendy. She also reconnects with a former love whose life was forever changed by a disastrous misjudgment on Ryan’s part. The story is full of twists and turns and kept me enthralled to the satisfying ending.  Also, there are dogs. <G>

My second book is Abbi Waxman‘s I WAS TOLD IT WOULD GET EASIER. Waxman is also the author of The Bookish Life of Nina Hill, which several Wenches enjoyed last year.  As a writer, Waxman is smart, funny, and always interesting. This is the story of mother and daughter Jessica and Emily Burnstein, told in alternating first person from each of them.

Jessica is a single mother and a very smart, very successful Los Angeles lawyer who is tired of the sexual discrimination at her top tier law firm and is more than ready to get away for a week on an East Coast bus tour of elite universities with her sixteen year old daughter Emily. Once they were very close, but now there’s a lot of tension. The tour kids all attend elite, expensive private schools and most of the parents and kids are obsessed with getting into name brand universities – although Emily isn’t even sure she wants to go to college and she’s keeping a secret about a scandal at her own school.

Interacting with each other and the others on the tour, as well as meeting people from Jessica’s past, is hilarious and thought provoking and catches a key moment when the chick is looking to leave the nest, and mother and daughter are both trying to figure out what comes next. Highly recommended.

So what have you been reading this month? Give us your recommendations please!


Shadows in the Ashes

Christina here, and I’m very excited because tomorrow it’s publication day at last for my new dual time novel SHADOWS IN THE ASHES! It is set partly in Roman times, in Pompeii 79 AD, just before and during the fateful eruption of Mount Vesuvius. This event really fired my imagination and I’ve wanted to use it in a story for quite some time. It was also a great excuse to finally visit the ruins of the city and the surrounding area in the Bay of Naples – you can read my blog post about that here if you haven’t seen it already.

I’ve been writing about Vikings for quite a while now, so it was great fun to switch to another era for a while. But I didn’t go completely Roman as Raedwald, the hero of the story, is a ‘barbarian’ from Frisia (north-western Netherlands), who has been captured and enslaved. He eventually ends up as a gladiator, and is plotting to regain his freedom, as well as revenge on the younger half-brother and step-mother who betrayed him. Was it possible for slaves to escape? Ordinarily, it would have been very difficult, but with a volcano covering your tracks – quite literally – I figured anything could happen!

The heroine in the present also longs to escape, but in a different way. She’s trapped in an abusive marriage, held hostage by the fact that she has a three-year-old daughter whom her husband wouldn’t hesitate to use as leverage against her. Domestic abuse, both mental and physical, is unfortunately all too common, and it was a subject I wanted to highlight. It takes great courage and determination to break free from a relationship like that!

Here’s the blurb to tell you what SHADOWS IN THE ASHES is about:-

Can you forge a new path from the ashes of your old life?

Present Day – Finally escaping an abusive marriage, Caterina Rossi takes her three-year-old daughter and flees to Italy. There she’s drawn to research scientist Connor, who needs her translation help for his work on volcanology. Together they visit the ruins of Pompeii and, standing where Mount Vesuvius unleashed its fire on the city centuries before, Cat begins to see startling visions. Visions that appear to come from the antique bracelet handed down through her family’s generations…

AD 79 – Sold by his half-brother and enslaved as a gladiator in Roman Pompeii, Raedwald dreams only of surviving each fight, making the coin needed to return to his homeland and taking his revenge. That is, until he is hired to guard beautiful Aemilia. As their forbidden love grows, Raedwald’s dreams shift like the ever more violent tremors of the earth beneath his feet.

The present starts eerily to mirror the past as Cat must fight to protect her safety, and to forge a new path from the ashes of her old life…

And here’s an excerpt from the beginning of the story when the heroine in the present begins to realise that perhaps there is a glimmer of hope for her on the horizon:-

North London, 10 April 2022

‘You really should leave him, you know.’

The quiet voice coming from across the hedge made Cat jump, and she forgot to cover her face as she swung round to see who was talking to her. Her neighbour, Suzanne, a woman in her late fifties or early sixties, was peering over the clipped yew. Her expression of quiet compassion turned into one of concern when she caught sight of Cat’s rapidly swelling eye and cheek.

‘The utter bastard!’ she hissed. ‘Honestly, what is it that makes some men think they can act however they like?’

‘No, no, I . . . tripped. It was my own fault,’ Cat whispered, putting up a hand to protect her face from view. ‘Really, it was nothing.’

She’d had worse, but she’d never admit that, especially not to the only person in the neighbourhood who ever talked to her. They’d chatted occasionally across the fence, just small talk about the weather and such, but it made Cat feel slightly less isolated.

‘Hmm.’ The non-committal noise conveyed the woman’s scepticism, and Cat cringed inwardly.

How had it come to this? Why was she lying to protect a man who mistreated her? But she had no choice if she wanted to keep Bella from harm. If she wanted to keep her, full stop. So far, he had never hurt their daughter, but should she try to divorce him, he would be given shared custody of the little girl. Knowing him, he would use that to torment Cat endlessly. Perhaps even turn the child against her through bribery and lies as she grew up. She simply couldn’t risk it.

‘I’d better go inside. If I put some ice on it, the swelling will soon go down.’ She turned away, wanting nothing more than to escape now. The embarrassment of being caught looking like this was more than she could bear.

‘No, wait! Please, let me take a photo. It might help … one day, when you’re ready to walk away. And I’d be happy to testify on your behalf any time you need me.’ Suzanne shrugged and gesticulated towards their adjoining semi-detached properties, modern and purpose-built. ‘These houses weren’t made with thick walls, so I’m afraid I hear a thing or two …’

Cat swallowed hard. This was getting worse and worse. ‘Oh God,’ she muttered, but then a small spark of defiance lit up inside her and she turned back towards Suzanne, lifting her chin a fraction.

‘OK, then, take a photo if you want, but I doubt I’ll use it. I can’t. My daughter …’

Suzanne snapped a couple of quick pictures with her phone camera and nodded in sympathy. ‘I understand. What’s her name again? I’ve seen you with her in the garden, of course.’

‘Isabel, but we call her Bella. She’s, um, named after her grandmother, so we don’t want to confuse the two.’

She shuddered at the thought, and sincerely hoped her daughter would be nothing like her mother-in-law when she grew up. The woman was as cold as a hoar frost; a control freak who had raised her son with an iron fist. It was no wonder Derek thought violence was acceptable, really, although it was still no excuse. From what Cat had gathered, he’d been subjected to corporal punishment from an early age. He had been just ten when his father had died, and from that moment on his mother had expected him to ‘be a man’. No excessive emotions allowed. No weakness either. In fact, she’d done a fine job of turning him into an insensitive brute. It was a shame Cat hadn’t realised that until it was too late.

Suzanne put her phone in her pocket. ‘Now, please, will you do me a favour? Whenever something like this happens, come out here and call for me and I’ll take a photo. I’m usually in the kitchen or living room, so I’ll hear you. I’ll download the photos to my computer and date them, then if you ever want to, er … break free, I’ll send them to you. Deal?’

She held out her hand across the low hedge and Cat felt compelled to shake it. There was something firm and reassuring in Suzanne’s grip, giving her a tiny spark of encouragement. And an even smaller flicker of hope.

‘Deal,’ she whispered.

‘And just in case you were wondering, you’re not alone. I was in a similar situation some years back. It might feel hopeless right now, but it is possible to get away, trust me.’

Cat blinked away a sudden rush of tears. She’d probably never have the courage to leave Derek, but it didn’t hurt to be prepared. Perhaps she could do it. Break free. One day. But not just yet.

‘OK,’ she murmured. ‘Th- thank you, Suzanne.’

I enjoyed switching eras and writing about the Romans. Is there a period in history you would like to learn more about?

Please leave a comment below for a chance to win a giveaway – a signed copy of the book and a small Roman reproduction coin pendant.

(SHADOWS IN THE ASHES buy link:- )

From Chicks to Hens

Purple_Fedora_hatChristina here. I’ve been thinking about so called “hen lit” recently, as I read some books that could be put in that category. It’s usually defined as stories with older heroines, and Wikipedia also calls it “matron lit”, a term I vehemently dislike! I mean, just because you’ve hit a certain age doesn’t mean you automatically turn into a “matron”, does it? I’m of the mindset of the poem Warning by Jenny Joseph, about breaking the rules when you get old, wearing purple and doing things you shouldn’t just because you can – that is the way I want to age, not conforming to any mould.

FredericaWhat do we consider an older heroine? I’m guessing women from the age of about forty/forty-five and upwards, although to me forty now seems fairly young. (Yes, I’m already that old!) It’s all very subjective, but the actual age doesn’t really matter – it’s the fact that they are not pretty young things any more, waiting for their big love story and Happy-Ever-After with a gorgeous man, two point five children, and a lovely house with a picket fence. Instead they are older and (hopefully) wiser than the average romance heroine, and may already have been there and done that. Also got the T-shirt and discarded it.

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Feelgood Fiction

Feelgood balloonChristina here. I recently attended a writers'/readers' conference in Sweden called the FEELGOOD FESTIVAL. 200 readers congregated in the very picturesque town of Sigtuna (founded by Vikings in the 10th century and full of runestones so paradise for me!) to hear a day-long series of chats/discussions about various aspects of feelgood fiction. To me that term means romance, but as I listened to the authors being interviewed it quickly became clear that to Swedes it has a much broader meaning.

Sigtuna townRomance as a genre is severely under-represented in Sweden, where the largest sections of the book stores are devoted to crime/thrillers/Scandi Noir and more literary oeuvres. The upswing in popularity of what they call feelgood books is a recent (and to readers like me a very welcome) development that seems to be growing in strength every day. And yet, when I visited the biggest book store in Stockholm afterwards, they didn’t have a dedicated section for such stories – not even a table with recommendations. Not good!

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