Susanna here, considering it more than a little ironic that I should find myself in charge of this month’s What-We’re-Reading post, since having been caught in the whirl of activity that accompanies seeing one child off to university (in Europe, since my children never do things by halves) whilst fighting the lure of the ever-present Research Rabbit Holes that keep opening up for my current novel, and trying to pack for a Very Rapidly Approaching trip to Scotland, I’ve had no time for reading anything you’d want to hear about.
Fortunately, my fellow Wenches have plenty of suggestions for your bedside reading stacks:
I had the very great pleasure of a pre-read of Mary Jo Putney's Once a Spy for an interview on the wenches on September 25th. I read it and thoroughly enjoyed it — Mary Jo is so good at weaving love stories and action together. If you missed the interview, it's here.
Sharon Shinn is a fantasy author I really enjoy, and I subscribe to her newsletter so when her new "Echo" series came out, I grabbed them as soon as they were available. Shinn writes very appealing characters, and her world-building is superb– and fascinating.
In this world, aristocrats have "echoes" — creatures that are exact copies of themselves, that imitate every movement, but who don't speak or apparently think. The echoes appear soon after a baby is born — first you have one baby, then a blink later there are four, though only one is crying. It's a fair bit to swallow, but fun to imagine, and Shinn makes it work.
Echo in Onyx is the first in the series and the story is told from the point of view of Biranna, a young country girl who comes to the city in search of work, and ends up becoming maid to Lady Marguerite, who is one of the candidates for a royal marriage. I devoured it and went on to do the same for the following books in the series.
I had been hearing such good things about Bringing Down the Duke, by Evie Dunmore, that I moved it to the top of my TBR pile. And oh, am I glad I did— I just loved it! Dunmore that a very familiar trope—the stiff, reserved gentleman who’s vowed never fall victim to love finding his heart won’t listen to his head—and gives it freshness and depth. At first blush, the characters appear familiar too. There’s the brilliant but destitute heroine, who is forced to work as an unpaid governess for her odious dumb-as-dirt cousin when her country vicar father dies. Desperate to escape, Annabelle finds an ad offering a scholarship to Oxford—the catch is, she has to spend some time working for a group of women agitating for women’s voting rights by approaching important men in government (the year is 1879) and lobbying them to consider the issue. She unwittingly picks the infamous Duke of Montgomery—again, the stereotypical cold, aloof, imperious aristocrat—as her target, and, well, things immediately get VERY interesting! The dialogue is wonderfully witty and clever. But it’s the depth and complexity of the characters that made the book so special for me. Their vulnerabilities, and conflicts are revealed beautifully, and the book becomes much more than a funny romp of manners as they slowly help each other overcome their fears and discover the redemptive power of love. I highly recommend it!
On a totally different note, I've also have been reading the biography of Alexander Hamilton by Ron Chernow (the book on which the musical is based.) I knew Hamilton was a very influential thinker, but I hadn't realized just what an extraordinary person he was, and how many facets of shaping country he was involved in. It’s beautifully written, and the story of his life is quite remarkable. You get a wonderful look at colonial America, and the other fmaous personages of the day. (Hamilton was a protege of George Washington, and despite their butting of heads at times, they remained friends lifelong friends.) It’s history at its best—combining a picture of the era as well as a portrait of an absolutely amazing individual. Again, highly recommended!
I’ve been waiting with bated breath to get hold of the new Robert Harris thriller, The Second Sleep. He is one of my auto-buy authors and never more so than when he is writing a historical novel. I admire his skill at creating tension and page turning quality allied with some really elegant prose. So as soon as I got the book I plunged in. It’s hard to describe the plot without giving away a massive spoiler from the very start so I’ll just say that in the year 1468 a young priest, Christopher Fairfax, is sent to an isolated village in Devon to oversee the burial of the parish priest. Once there he untangles a series of mysteries that lead him to question everything he has learned about the past, which in turn has a profound effect on his life and his future. Everything is not as it seems in this “medieval” world…
I liked Christopher very much and there were some interesting other characters and some good twists in the story. The sense of atmosphere is very strong. It’s fair to say this is a book I thought about for a long time afterwards. With its themes of memory and history and religion it was very powerful and I found it quite dark and disturbing. In the end, though, for me it couldn’t quite live up to some of Robert Harris’ other books and I was a bit disappointed. If anyone else has read it I would love to know what they think!
My non-fiction read this month was Lovell Our Dogge: The Life of Viscount Lovell, closest friend of Richard III and failed regicide by Michele Schindler. I’d say this is a must for anyone who is interested in Richard III and the events around his life and the disappearance of the Princes in the Tower. It’s a very well-written book that reads like a novel and I was completely engaged. It’s astonishing that there hasn’t been a biography of Francis Lovell before when he was so closely involved in such a significant period of history. Francis does, of course, have a walk on part in a number of historical novels set in this period, such as the Sunne in Splendour, but it was fascinating to read the real story of this historical figure.
Last but not at all least, after all the recommendations here, I picked up a copy of The Work of Art by Mimi Matthews and enjoyed it very much indeed! It’s a really beautiful love story and I enjoyed the depth and richness of the characters and their relationship. Wonderful and satisfying!
Mary Jo here, and in a fantasy + romance mode.
Firstly, I want to enthusiastically endorse Anne's recommendation of Sharon Shinn's new Echo trilogy. Shinn is an amazing world builder and her stories always have good romances, and these books are no exception. I read all three on my recent vacation, and wish there were more!
My own recommendation this month is for Sorcery and Cecilia, by Patricia C. Wrede and Caroline Stevemer, friends and fantasy writers in Minnesota. Think Georgette Heyer Regency with magic.
Set in 1817, this is an epistolary novel as cousins and best friends Cecilia and Kate exchange letters after they're separated when Kate is packed off to London for her Season and Cecy is left home and bored in the country. Each author writes one of the main characters. (I think Wrede is Cecilia and Stevemer is Kate, though I won't swear to it.) Magic is part of their world, including a Royal College of Magicians.
The book is light and funny as the young ladies meet young gentleman, worry about their wardrobes, and find themselves involved with magic and annoyingly bossy men who are nonetheless appealing. <G> There are mysteries to be solved, social events to be attended, and budding romance. Great fun.
I first read this book years ago and enjoyed it thoroughly, and recently I found that the authors had written two more books in the series. The second book is called The Grand Tour, and it starts with the double wedding of Cecilia and Kate and their men. Their husbands are best friends and both former officers of Wellington's in the Peninsular Wars. They take off on a joint honeymoon and get drawn into uncovering a perilous plot that threatens the peace of Europe. As one does. <G>
A good part of the fun of this book is that even though both couples are madly in love with their mates, they are learning how to be married. (Since Cecy and Kate are traveling together, they aren't exchanging letters; Cecy's contributions are part of her later deposition with the Royal College of Magicians, and Kate is writing in her day book. The effect is the same as in the first book).
The third book is The Mislaid Magician and is set ten years later. Cecy and her husband are up north looking for a missing German surveyor/magician while Kate and Thomas ride herd on all their magically inclined children. In this book, the husbands also exchange letters.
All three books are bundled together in a box set. My favorite is the first, but they're all good fun, and the authors are pretty darned good at their Regency details!
I am beyond tired of publishers limiting genre fiction to certain parameters that have worn thin. I love romance and cozy mysteries, but right now, I can’t find a single original story. So when PopCo by Scarlett Thomas popped up after I bought a new iPad, and I couldn’t remember reading it, I gave it a go. If you read the opening, you’ll understand my level of desperation that I kept slogging through that morass.
Because it contains a lot of interesting Information (I researched codes and ciphers for Devilish Montague, remember) about logic, math, and code problems, I took my time with it. Probably the first quarter of the book is getting to know the thoughts of the protagonist, who is a very human confusion of hopes, doubts, and fears.
Essentially, the protag works for a major toy company designing new toys. At the last minute, she’s included in a month-long retreat where other people from the company—oddly, not all toy designers—are immersed in how to market toys, particularly to teenage girls. Our heroine has an extremely odd background of family code-breakers and mathematicians and treasure hunters, so creating toys is just one more fun fantasy for which she’s paid very well.
Except as the retreat continues, she comes to realize they are creating brainwashing techniques in the name of profit. And then all the odd things happening in her life, in the company, with all her new-found friends, start snowballing until she finally realizes what she wants out of life. It’s a very odd book with all the puzzles explained by the end and with a happy-in-its-own-way ending. Read it just for the sheer pleasure of reading.
There you have it — our round-up of Wenchly reads and recommendations. Now, what are you reading this month?