Anne here, with our regular end-of-the-month post about the books we’ve read and enjoyed in the last month. This is a favorite post with Wenches and readers alike, as we share and discuss the books we have enjoyed.
We start with Christina, on Check & Mate by Ali Hazelwood.
Christina says: I’ve loved all Ms Hazelwood’s books before this one and was excited to read her latest. It was good and I liked it, but not as much as the others. The heroine, Mallory, is not a STEM (Science Technology Engineering and Mathematics) one as in previous stories, although she is clearly intelligent and gifted in a different way to other people. Her super-power, as it were, is chess. Her father was a Grand Master and he taught her from a young age, but when he betrayed her mother and left the family, Mallory stopped playing. Anything to do with chess was simply too painful and she feels guilty because she was the one who alerted her mother to the fact that her dad was cheating, thus breaking up the family.
Four years later, she is once again drawn into the world of chess (against her will but forced by circumstances as she needs money) and meets enigmatic World Champion Nolan. Their relationship is difficult, but the attraction between them is undeniable. They are both keeping secrets, however, and the path to true love does not run smooth.
I found the story fascinating, and learned a lot about the world of chess (a game I’ve never mastered myself), but I didn’t always like the heroine. She was too prickly and quite frankly irritating, and I didn’t feel that she deserved the hero’s forbearance with all her childish sulking and anger. If you like a slow-burn romance with lots of chess involved, this one is for you. I enjoyed it, but not quite as much as Ms Hazelwood’s previous stories.
Susan says: Nothing makes me happier than a story that combines academics, books and journals, faeries, a subtle romance–all in a snowy Nordic setting in 1910, even better.
Heather Fawcett’s Emily Wilde’s Encyclopedia of Faeries is delightful and brilliant. Emily Wilde, a Cambridge academic researching faeries for the comprehensive encyclopedia she’s writing, travels to Iceland to investigate the local faery population there, staying in a small village to get the work done. Faeries and supernatural creatures are real in her world, and Emily has met many faeries and fey types, but she’s unfamiliar with the local variety. Meeting locals and finding faery sorts to interview, she’s working away when her Cambridge colleague, Wendell Bambleby, arrives to lend a hand and showboat a little–he can’t help being a handsome, charismatic aristocratic scholar who just might be one of the Fair Folk himself.
As Emily and Wendell delve deeper into the research and the faery culture, hidden dangers emerge, along with Wendell’s curious abilities. His affection and patience for Emily, and her frustration and secret crush on him, develop while they try to figure out a wintry enchantment that soon turns dark and threatens the village and everyone in it. Emily is a turn-of-the-century feminist geek, and I loved her; Wendell is mysterious, sexy, quirky and fascinating. Written in the form of Emily’s research journal, the story blends fantasy, mystery, humor, romance and an academic spin with just the right balance. I gobbled it up, and I’ve already grabbed book two in the series, released just this week.
Mary Jo here: Since I spent the last couple of months in book deadline lockdown, most of my reading was rereads of old favorites. (Not reading at all was simply not to be thought of!).
In December I read my perennial holiday favorite, Trisha Ashley’s The Twelve Days of Christmas. I’ve loved the story since Anne Gracie introduced me to it because it creates such a delicious world. An acerbic widowed chef takes on a house and pet sitting job in a remote corner of Lancashire in expectation of spending a quiet holiday contemplating and working on a cookery book. Instead, more and more people keep arriving and being snowed in and her cooking skills are desperately needed. The story is fully of fun, delicious food, and romance! I read and enjoy it again every December.
Rereading led me to Robert Heinlein, a science fiction writer I’ve loved since I was in junior high school, and a marvelous storyteller. He was one of the Grand Masters of Science Fiction with a long career and a wide variety of stories. I’ve read most of what he wrote and I always find his characters and story lines compelling even though the technology his people use is pretty out of date. (Slide rules! Among other things,) <G>.
One of Heinlein’s most fun stories and his first Hugo Winner for the best science fiction novel of the year is Double Star. Relatively short, it’s the tale of Lawrence Smith, aka “The Great Lorenzo,” who is a down-on-his-luck actor who is offered a mysterious job acting as a double for a public figure who had been kidnapped just before a vitally important ceremony. Larry takes the job reluctantly–and finds himself adjacent to murder and mayhem and on a space ship heading for Mars! He has to use all of his professional skills to do the job, and in the process discovers himself and what his purpose in life is.
Another Heinlein I just read is The Moon is a Harsh Mistress, another Hugo winner for best novel. Set in the lunar colonies of Earth’s moon, the hero Manny (“Manuel O’Kelly Davis”) is an easygoing fellow who is the best computer man in Luna. He and his large family have comfortable lives, but when Manny realizes that one of his regular projects, maintaining the largest computer on Mars, is developing consciousness, it’s the first step for him becoming a leader of the lunar revolution that is fighting to overthrow the brutal colonial authority whose actions will eventually destroy the colonies and everyone who lives there.
Heinlein stories are very character driven, fast moving, with positive endings and usually a bit of romance. I don’t love all his books, but I definitely love these two!
Pat here, starting with THE MYSTERY WRITER, by Sulari Gentill
I have no idea how she does it, but Sulari Gentill manages to subvert genre, turn it on its head, and spin it around into something fresh and original. As she did with Woman in the Library, she takes a mystery and turns it into a character-driven tour de force, although I think The Mystery Writer leans more toward thriller. The story is still about writers, but this time we have assassins and conspiracy theories and zealots and hippies and even a smattering of romance and family relationships. And she does it all brilliantly, although if I try to describe it, it would be a spoiler. Know you’re in capable hands and next time you want a gripping page-turner, pick this one up. It’s currently a pre-order.
The No-Show, by Beth O’Leary. Wow, I’m not sure if or how to recommend this one. It was almost impossible to put down. But if I try to explain the plot, it will mess with the delicious twists and turns that you can see coming—but aren’t anything like you expect. I think it’s been decades since I’ve read a book where I couldn’t predict half the plot and the ending before I reach mid-book. This one… No way.
Very vaguely, the book is set mostly around London before the pandemic. It features three completely different women: Siobhan, the sexy life-coach with an extremely busy career who needs a life-coach of her own; Miranda, a happy tree surgeon who knows exactly who she is and what she wants; and Jane, a sad, crushed ex-secretary now volunteering at a charity shop in the back of beyond. And there is, of course, a man, a charming, nerdy but sexy man who is kind and caring and always late and disorganized.
Impossible as it sounds, it has a mostly happy ending. People grow and change and Things Happen, not all of them good. But you’ll love the ending, when it finally twists its way there, I promise.
Nicola here. This month I’ve been mixing old favourites with great new reads. I re-read the entire De Burgh medieval historical romance series by Deborah Simmons which I think were originally published by Harlequin Mills and Boon in the late 1990s and early 2000s.
Some have been reissued as kindle e-books recently which has made it easier to get hold of the whole series. The De Burgh brothers are the sons of the Earl of Campion, a clan of big strong warriors who have each other’s backs and fight for honour and the underdog, or in a lot of cases for women not so much in distress but well able to fight for themselves. Some of the brothers are cleverer than others (I loved Geoffrey, the thoughtful, learned one – obviously he’s still very hunky as well) and my other favourite was the widower Earl himself who, after almost all his sons have married and left the castle, realises he is lonely and ready to fall in love again himself. (That story, The Unexpected Guest, has one of my favourite lines in a romance novel. When the Earl carries his new bride up to the bedchamber: “he suspected that he ought to kick the door shut but that seemed a little too violent for his taste…”) A romp of a series I really enjoyed!
I’ve also had the pleasure of reading Jane Dunn’s latest Regency romance, A Scandalous Match, which came out this month. I love Jane’s books because they are not at all graphic but are deeply romantic and emotional in a “traditional” way. She takes tropes familiar to the Regency and gives them a fresh perspective and lots of depth. In A Scandalous Match, actress Angelica Leigh is courted by the son of a duke and his uncle, Ivor Asprey, is sent to intervene before the young buck makes a mesalliance… You can imagine what happens, but the conflicts and barriers to Ivor and Angelica being together are sensitively and realistically portrayed and the characters are superb. Ivor’s daughter steals the show! I loved it and will re-read it very soon.
Anne again. A lot of my reading in the last month or two has been rereading old favorite books, and several of those were in preparation for a new book coming out by a favorite author. So, when I knew Mary Balogh’s ALWAYS REMEMBER was about to come out, I reread the others in that series.
Left unable to walk by a childhood illness, Lady Jennifer, sister of the Duke of Wilby, puts on a serenely cheerful face, but secretly dreams of marriage, children, walking — and dancing. Ben, the illegitimate son of the late Earl of Stratton is a man who loves to solve problems, and when he offers Lady Jennifer some practical suggestions to help her, her family becomes alarmed. A duke’s sister and the illegitimate son of an earl? Impossible.
Another gorgeous story from Mary Balogh.
Sarah Addison Allen writes charming, whimsical stories set in the American South — you might call them magical realism. She has a lovely way with words and the stories are gentle and end happily. This review hit it off perfectly: “A dusting of magic, the aroma of sugary cakes swirling through the breeze, and a girl who unwittingly brings change to a town of misfits make for a sweet summer story filled with hope and forgiveness.”—Beth Hoffman
Andrea has had to miss the WWR this month, as she’s busy promoting her fabulous new book,The Diamond of London) — have you read it yet?
So that’s it from us for this month. It’s over to you, wenchly readers — what books have you read and enjoyed?