Susan here, with "What We're Reading" for February: a variety of romances, traditional and non-traditional; mysteries, contemporary and historical; classics; post-apocalyptic; paranormal; and a dash of nonfiction. Scroll on down, friends — your wish lists and TBR stacks are about to grow exponentially!
Mary Jo here:
New Zealand contemporary romance writer Lucy Parker is a great hit with the Word Wenches. I believe it was Anne Gracie who introduced us to her with Parker's first London Celebrities book, Act Like It. The wit, banter, and intelligence of this romance between two theater actors in London's West End made the story an instant favorite of mine.
The stories work fine as standalones, but they all take place in the same general West End milieu so characters wander through each others' stories. The heroine of book #4, The Austen Playbook, was actor Freddy Carlton. Her sister, Sabrina Carlton, is the heroine of recently released book #5, Headliners, London Celebrities #5, a sparkling enemies-to-lovers story. Sabrina appeared in The Jane Austen Playbook, and she's the very successful and popular anchor of a TV evening show. Nick Davenport is host of a show on a rival network, and he brashly broadcast a Carlton family scandal, earning Sabina's red headed rage.
Then one of their networks buys the other, there isn't room for two evening shows, and Sabrina and Nick are made co-hosts of the live morning show which has terrible ratings. If they fail, they'll both be in the market for new jobs or even new careers.
Sparks and much humor ensue! Highly recommended if you like wit and banter entwined with your romance. The broadcasting world is convincing, too.
My other suggestion is something very different. There is a sizable subgenre of male/male romances, usually abbreviated as m/m and written by women. The Lady's Guide to Celestial Mechanics by Olivia Waite is the first female/female romance I've ever read. A Regency historical, it features Lucy Muchelney, a brilliant young mathematician and astronomer who had worked closely with her father. After his death, she realizes how trapped she is by a male society that has no use for female scientists and largely refuses to admit they exist.
Lucy's clueless brother is threatening to sell her telescope when Lucy goes to the widowed Lady Moth, a countess who had supported her husband's scientific endeavors. Lucy wants to translate an important French astronomical work into English, and she persuades Catherine St. Day, the countess, to become her patron. Though Lucy has always been aware of her sexual orientation, Catherine has never considered such a thing. But as they live in the same house and work together, they are drawn together in a deeply romantic way.
The Lady's Guide to Celestial Mechanics is not only an unusual and powerful romance, but also exploration of the obstacles and politics facing women of science. And it has a very satisfying ending! Recommended if you'd like to try something different.
I’ve had two stand out reads this month. The first was The House by the Sea by Louise Douglas, which put me in mind of Mary Stewart with its atmospheric mixture of romance and suspense.
When Edie hears that her mother in law Anna has died, her main emotion is relief. She always blamed Anna for the break-up of her family and wants nothing to do with the will that reunites her with her ex-husband Joe in ownership of the Villa Della Madonna in Sicily. When Edie reluctantly goes to Sicily to meet Joe and arrange to sell the villa, she is drawn into a decades-old mystery. How Edie and Joe find a way forward together and unravel the secrets of the past is told in a beautifully written page-turner that I found completely compelling. There were also welcome touches of humour amongst the mounting tension as well as some thought-provoking emotional elements to the story. If you enjoy a family saga with lots of layers of romance, mystery and suspense, you’ll love this.
A very different read but equally good was When Adam Met Evie by Guilia Skye. Michael Adams is a Canadian champion swimmer turned reality TV star who decides to escape his complicated life by travelling incognito through the Australian outback. He meets Evie, a cute British backpacker, and they team up on the road. Both Michael and Evie are interesting characters. Evie is getting over a painful breakup and is vulnerable but tough; she’s also a really nice person who would be a great friend. Michael is a bit up himself to start with but once he gets over his celebrity absorption he shows what a good guy he is underneath. The way that their relationship develops, both physically and emotionally, is written really well and has depth, humour, emotion and plenty of chemistry. This is a really good debut from Guilia Skye and I’ll be looking out for her books in future.
I delved in to a new-to-me mystery author after reading some very good reviews, including its choice as an Edgar Finalist and a New York Times Notable Book some years back. River of Darkness by Rennie Airth introduces John Madden, a Scotland Yard detective who has come back from the trenches of WWI a changed man. He’s quiet, reserved, and clearly scarred, though his eye for detail and insightful analysis remain undamaged. A brutal murder brings him to a rural English village, where he disagrees with the local constabulary’s assessment that it was a robbery gone horribly wrong. Added by a raw recruit, who is just learning the ropes, and the village doctor, who turns out to be a woman, Madden sets out to discern the motive—including consulting with a new type of doctor who uses Freud’s therapies to diagnose illnesses of the mind—and thus figure out what sort of person he should be looking for . . . It’s a very well-written mystery, with really interesting psychological cat and mouse twists. Fair warning—it’s quite gritty in terms of violence. I’m not usually a fan of that, but I made an exception because the characters were so well wrought and nuanced. (It’s on special sale on U. S. Amazon for $2.99)
And in honor of the newly released film version of Emma, which I’m planning to see this weekend, I re-read Austen's comedy of manners and marveled yet again at her wickedly sly observations on human nature. It will never displace P&P and Persuasion as my favorite Austen novels, but it’s a delight. (This e-book version on U. S. Amazon has the complete Austen novels for $1.99))
Joanna here. I’m not generally a fan of the “redeemed villain” trope in Romance books. It’s easy to write and hard to get right. Too often the resolution is “He was never really a villain at all” or “If you say you’re sorry and do a few grovels you are now (magic gesture) a good person.” My reality checker doesn’t like either of these.
But some of my favorite books deal in a gritty way with the pain of self-realization, difficult repayments, and going on to live with guilt. Lord of Scoundrels by Loretta Chase, The Rake by Mary Jo Putney, and Ain’t She Sweet by Susan Elizabeth Phillips are three such books.
I’ve found another one. Iron and Magic by Ilona Andrews.
I didn’t pick up this book for years because the protagonist was a major villain of the Kate Andrews books — the despicable Hugh d’Ambray, Preceptor of the Iron Dogs, murderer of innocents, torturer of protagonists and secondary characters, poster child for evil.
The authors were not going to redeem this guy for me. No way.
Weeell . . . yes. Way.
In post-apocalyptic America, warlord Hugh d’Ambray has been tossed aside by the immortal general he's served all his life. It's a devastating blow, and it breaks him. A small band of his elite corps drag him back from his determined pursuit of suicide by alcohol and set him to saving their lives and his own. Thus begins his journey through overwhelming guilt and what might be described as anger management issues to healing and a future
I was fascinated by the way the authors sell this redemption to the reader. Foreshadowings in earlier books are drawn together. There’s some robust near-villainy lurking in both protagonists’ heads which gives the plot a bit of flavor. In the end, monumental stubbornness , as well as love and sacrifice, conquer all.
An enjoyable adventure read for those who don't mind a bit of violence with their romance.
Mary Jo beat me to reviewing Lucy Parker's Headliners, so I won't add anything except to say I loved it too.
A book that's been getting a lot of buzz is The Flat Share — by Beth O'Leary — and I can say the buzz is well deserved. Tiffy, the heroine, needs to escape her obsessive ex-boyfriend and find a flat urgently — one she can afford. She ends up sharing one — a flat with only one bed. The owner, Leon, works nights, Tiffy works days. Leon will spend his weekends at his girlfriend's. The plan is that they will never meet. But slowly, through the leaving of notes in the flat, a friendship develops. I loved this book, it's funny and heartwarming and very entertaining.
Next I read Helen Hoang – The Kiss Quotient and The Bride Test. When it first came out there was a lot of enthusiastic internet talk about The Kiss Quotient and I'd bought it, but hadn't read it. Then recently The Bride Test was on special, which prompted me to read both books. I enjoyed them both very much. In each case a protagonist battles with autism — and since the author is autistic herself, it adds veracity to her portrayal. I should add that both books are pretty sexy, so if that's not your cup of tea, so be it.
I have been glomming the "Others" series by Anne Bishop, starting with Lake Silence. Paranormal, not so much romance, but good reading.
Lastly I read The Lantern Men, by Elly Griffiths. I'm a huge fan of her Dr. Ruth Galloway murder mystery series, and I gobbled this latest book up and enjoyed it as much as all the others.
Pat here, with The Wedding Bees: A Novel of Honey, Love, and Manners, by Sarah-Kate Lynch
This is women’s fiction with a love story, the kind of love story that actually has a happy ending and not a tragic one. But mostly, it’s about people and manners and life and bees. I assume it’s called magical realism, so many bee books are, but Sugar, the protagonist, will wrap you in warm honey, and you’ll slide right into this book like coming home to your hive. Really, I can tell you the story and talk about all the quirky characters and mention Sugar’s terrible secret, but the plot simply doesn’t matter. Sugar simply walks into your living room just as she walks into her new home at the beginning and settles down to making herself at home. She’s happy anywhere she goes, but you know, deep down, that there’s an unhappiness she’s covering up. And that’s why her love interest is such a gem, because even if he is a little crazy, he gets her and gets what she needs and makes her face up to it.
That said, if I had a neighbor like Sugar, I’d probably lock the door and pull the blinds every time I heard her coming my way. But that’s my problem, not hers.
And Susan here. I haven't done much reading, honestly, in the past few weeks thanks to three eye surgeries, but things are better now and I'll be catching up on my waiting (and growing) stack of books soon. I did read an excellent historical novel that I can't talk about yet, as I was providing an author quote for a book that isn't released yet. It's early medieval, richly realized, and focuses on a unique queen in a fascinating time.
And I made my way leisurely through an entertaining, thought-provoking, compelling read–Susan Hill's Howards End Is On the Landing. Hill, an author herself (Woman in Black), writes here of her experience, one day, of looking everywhere for a specific book among the many bookshelves and reading stacks in her home in England–which sets off her year-long journey through the books in her home, the ones she's treasured, studied, revered, forgotten about, lost, always meant to read and never got to, all the books she rediscovers, one by one. The reading tour of the bookshelves in her home becomes an adventure, an exploration, a delve and discovery that is at times nostalgic, scholarly, amusing, fascinating–and always tantalizing if you're as much of a bibliophile as she is (and I think I am that far gone!). As she endeavors to set her hands on every book in her home, it becomes part autobiography–the books as gifts and purchases and great finds form the framework of her life from childhood to present day–and part travelogue, of a sort, past the shelves and collections in her keeping. Her book inspires me to try what I've always wanted to do, if I ever found real time–to lay my hands on every book in my home, take stock of it all, rediscover, catch up, savor, as Hill does here to such great effect.
What have you been reading lately? We're always eager to add new titles to our own wish lists and to-be-reads!