Christina here with this month’s round-up of Wenchly book recommendations! The recent beautiful spring weather, and the fact that lockdown has been easing in many places, has meant that the Wenches have been able to go out and about a bit more, but we have still been doing quite a lot of reading. Below we have another eclectic selection for you – from fantasy to romcom to Shakespeare (well, sort of) and more – and we hope that you will join in as always with your own recommendations!
Anne: Two very different books have hit the spot for me this month. The first is An Easy Death by Charlaine Harris, the first in her "Gunny Rose" series. Set in an alternative "America" where a combination of the 'flu plague of the early 20th century, the assassination of the US president, the escape from Imperial Russia by the Tsar and all his court, fleeing The Red Army, and general "wild west" style lawlessness in some parts of the country have resulted in the break up of the former USA and the formation of "new" countries or territories.
Lizbeth Rose is a 19 year old "gunny" – a brilliant sharp-shooter whose job it is to guard people and shipments from outlaws, would-be-slavers and thieves, and there are plenty of them. Add in a paranormal thread, where some of the Russian refugees (now running a territory called the Holy Russian Empire – California to the Canadian border) can perform magic, and you have a cracking good yarn.
There's quite a lot of shooting and killing, but isn't the kind of graphic violence I shrink from. Only baddies are killed. And Gunny Rose is a very appealing character – loyal, principled, and she's never failed a client – yet. And of course there's a handsome Russian wizard on a secret mission who keeps getting in her way. The first book in the series is called An Easy Death, which is what people traditionally wish gunnies when they head off on a mission. I've since read the other two in the series and can't wait for #4.
Starting Over at Acorn Cottage by Kate Forster – I have a soft spot for the kind of English book where a woman breaks up with her unworthy partner and moves to start a new life in the country. My next recommendation is one of those, only it's a little different – in a good way. In Kate Forster's Starting Over at Acorn Cottage, Clara, learning that her boyfriend and her best friend have been having an affair, chucks in her unsatisfying job, and sight unseen, buys a pretty little thatched country cottage in a charming village.
Of course when she gets there, the cottage is a mess and in need of lots of work. Luckily a wandering widowed handyman and his young daughter come past, and Clara hires him to renovate the cottage. As the story progresses Clara connects with several of the other villagers, and this is where this book departs from the usual feel-good escape-to-the-country novel. I won't explain too much, but the book takes you deeper into the lives of the villagers – multi generational, too – and every one of the main characters has much to learn. There's a lot of wisdom here, and the happy endings are well earned.
I bought the second book in the series, Finding Love at Mermaid Terrace, and enjoyed it too.
Patricia: I loved the grim reaper books by Darynda Jones so I grabbed the first book of her new Sunshine Vicram series, A Bad Day for Sunshine, starring Sunshine Vicram, a female sheriff in an unusual town in New Mexico. To start with, Sunshine wasn’t running for election when she won. But she’d grown up in Del Sol, knew the inhabitants and their kinks, and her fourteen-year-old daughter loved living near her grandparents. The author has created another warmhearted, smart-mouthed heroine who gathers a posse of not-quite-straitlaced characters around her.
She’s also created another enigmatic, hard-bitten hero, one who sells legal moonshine and whose family belongs to what they call the southern mafia. In this first book, Sunshine is in a race to find a kidnapped friend of her daughter’s before she’s killed, a death that the girl has been predicting since she was a child in another state. The violence is minimal, the sex non-existent, but the story is intense and funny at the same time. Admittedly, the tension gave me nightmares, but if you like off-beat, well-drawn characters, these are simply irresistible.
Nicola: It’s been a bit of a quiet reading month for me. I read a couple of the books recommended in the March What We’re Reading: A Murder in Time by Julie McElwain and Paladin’s Strength by T. Kingfisher. I enjoyed both of them and as they were reviewed last month, I’ll simply add that I particularly loved the characters of Isthvan and Clara in Paladin’s Strength, and the chemistry between them was wonderful. That plus the witty dialogue made this a great book for me even though I’m not usually someone who enjoys such strong fantasy elements in a story.
As it was Shakespeare’s birthday this month, I also picked up a book I’ve been meaning to read for a while: Contested Will: Who Wrote Shakespeare? by James Shapiro. Wow, I had no idea that the question of authorship of Shakespeare’s plays was such a fiercely argued one! James Shapiro explains where and when the first doubts arose that “the man from Stratford” had actually written the plays himself, who the other contenders are and why they were considered, and then makes the case for William Shakespeare being the author of… William Shakespeare’s plays and poetry. Along the way he gives a fascinating insight into how we view history and also literature, whether we expect fiction to be autobiographical and how different from us the Elizabethans were in so many ways. It was a very thought-provoking read.
Andrea: This month my reading took me from WWII London to the top of Mt. Everest, and I very much enjoyed the journey through both fact and fiction! I’m a big armchair adventurer, and The Third Pole by Mark Synnott, a journalist who writes frequently for National Geographic, is an absolutely riveting account of a 2019 expedition to Mt. Everest in search of the answer to the bedeviling question of whether British mountaineers George Mallory and Sandy Irvine actually reached the summit of the mountain in 1924, and thus were the first men to conquer the mountain – not Edmund Hillary and Tenzing Norgay in 1953. (Mallory and Irvine were spotted climbing close to the summit by their expedition team members, but then disappeared. Mallory’s body was discovered in the 1990s, but Irvine, who was said to be carrying a camera, has never been found. The camera might prove whether they summited.)
Part history, part mystery, part adventure, part personal meditations on what drives extreme athletes, the book takes readers from the rarefied courtyards of Merton College, Oxford in the 1920s, to a modern day top secret research lab where the author helped test drones to see if they could fly at Everest’s high altitude and freezing cold. There is also skulduggery with the Chinese government, who control access to the North Face of Mt. Everest – and have a vested interest in NOT having the British prove they were the first to conquer the mountain by that route … And there is the physical agony of people pushing themselves past the normal limits into the “death zone”. Synnott writes with the wonderful pacing of a thriller novel as he takes readers back and forth in time, building the excitement of whether the modern expedition ends up finding Sandy Irvine and his camera. No spoilers, but the ending is fascinating. I couldn’t put it down!
The Last Night in London by Karen White is a wonderfully engaging dual timeline narrative in which modern day American journalist Maddie Warner, whose life has been scarred by family tragedy, comes to London to help her Oxford roommate – a fashion editor – create a museum exhibit on British fashion just before WWII. She's excited about interviewing one of the top fashion models of the time, an elderly woman named Precious Debose, who also happens to be a family relative. But as Maddie talks with Precious, she senses hidden secrets and pain that rivals her own. And when she and her fashion friend begin to look closely at the vintage fashion photographs, some very unsettling questions arise …
White switches back and forth from the modern narrative to the story of Precious and her best friend and fellow model Eva as they rise to the top of their profession just as war is threatening England. The two beautiful women are drawn into the highest circles of London Society, and are soon caught up in love … and international intrigue that has shattering consequences. As Maddie tries to unravel the painful truths about her relative's past, she’s also wrestling with her own doubts and fears. She dated her friend’s brother during college, and it didn’t end up well, because she never dared to tell him her deepest secret. That he's helping with the exhibition is awkward, and stirs old feelings she doesn’t wish to acknowledge … But as the two begin to unravel the truth behind Precious’s story, they find themselves confronting their past. White creates a very compelling family saga, with lovely prose, interesting twists and turns, and very vulnerable and sympathetic characters. Highly recommended!
The first I read was at Anne's suggestion: A Wizard's Guide to Defensive Baking. How can one possibly ignore a title like that? According to the author's note at the end, it started out as a children's book, but it evolved far beyond that. Mona is a baker with a minor magical gift for dough and baking. Her "familiar" is a rather surly blob of sourdough starter, and she can make gingerbread men dance.
But there is an anti-wizard campaign going on, and a viciously destructive horde is heading toward Mona's city. What can a fourteen year old baker do when she is the only wizard left in the city and she has none of the skills of a war wizard? What Mona can do is amazing and imaginative and I won't say more because that would ruin the surprise. <G>
The next T. Kingfisher book I read was also suggested by Anne, and I'd recommend starting with Swordheart before reading the Paladin stories because that book lays the groundwork for that world. Here's part of the blurb of the story because it explains it so well:
"Halla is a housekeeper who has suddenly inherited her great-uncle's estate … and, unfortunately, his relatives. Sarkis is an immortal swordsman trapped in a prison of enchanted steel. When Halla draws the sword that imprisons him, Sarkis finds himself attempting to defend his new wielder against everything from bandits and roving inquisitors to her own in-laws … and the sword itself may prove to be the greatest threat of all …"
The world has many gods and religions. When Halla flees her horrible relations with Sarkis as her protector, she seeks justice by going to the Temple of the White Rat. They have a reputation for helping people solve problems, and their great skill is being – lawyers. <G> A cleric of the Rat can help Halla reclaim her inheritance, but what can be done to solve the relationship challenges of an insecure woman and a warrior who lives in a sword? <G>
Paladin's Grace would be the next book to read, then Paladin's Strength and I hope the series continues, but T. Kingfisher seems to have several series going and I'm just glad that she seems to be a fast writer! She's a wonderfully funny and inventive writer and her fantasy stories fulfill her desire to write "floofy romances." The stories are great fun and have happy endings, though they go places most romances would never considering going. (Such as having a love interest who lives in a sword.)
Kingfisher's writing reminds me of the late great Terry Pratchett's quirky originality, but the point of view is American, not British and Kingfisher is more romantic. If you're looking for something charming and different – T. Kingfisher is an author to investigate!
Christina: Following Nicola’s recent recommendation of Tessa Dare’s Spindle Cove series, I glommed the lot and thoroughly enjoyed immersing myself in the Regency period. My particular favourite was A Week to be Wicked, featuring bluestocking Minerva Highwood and Colin Sandhurst, Lord Payne – I never can resist a true rake and loved their mad journey together!
After that, I was in need of something contemporary and I was lucky enough to receive an ARC of Under the Italian Sun by Sue Moorcroft (which will be published on 13th May)! This book is an absolute gem and the perfect spring/summer read. I loved it from the first page to the last and kept reading until 3am to find out how it would end – just couldn’t put it down. Set in a stunning part of Italy – one I’d love to visit now! – it’s the story of Zia, a woman searching for her roots. After the death of her mother, she’s been brought up by elderly grandparents, but when they too are gone and she’s looking through some of her mother’s old things, she finds documents she can’t make sense of. This is the beginning of a quest that takes her to Italy, because of course she wants to know more, not least how she came by her strange name (which means “aunt” in Italian).
Zia discovers that things aren’t always what they seem and not as straightforward as we would like. In achieving her own goals, she might inadvertently destroy the lives of others – so is it worth the risk? People close to her have kept secrets all her life, for reasons that seemed good but were perhaps misguided. Zia finds so much more than she had ever imagined in Italy and ultimately what she really wants most. The ending was incredibly emotional, but I finished reading with a big happy smile on my face. Can’t recommend this highly enough!
So what about you – what have you been reading this month? We're looking forward to your recommendations!