What We’re Reading — Jan 2024

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 ChristmasI’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.

The Girl Who Chased the Moon – Sarah Addison Allen

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?

36 thoughts on “What We’re Reading — Jan 2024”

  1. During January, week by week ~

    — In late December, I reread the first three books in Andrea Höst’s Touchstone series. I then continued with Gratuitous Epilogue, In Arcadia, and Snow Day. I enjoyed them all.
    — Better Than People (Garnet Run Book 1) by Roan Parrish is a contemporary romance featuring an artist with many pets who has broken his leg and a graphic designer with anxiety who loves animals. The first man advertises for a pet walker which is how they meet. I enjoyed it.

    — the contemporary romance Time to Shine by Rachel Reid. I enjoyed this story featuring two professional hockey players both of whom have baggage.
    — A Power Unbound (The Last Binding Book 3) by Freya Marske, the third book in a fantasy trilogy. I enjoyed it once details of the two previous books came back to me. This is definitely NOT a standalone story.

    I had no power for several days so did quite some reading.
    restored.
    — Neil Gaiman’s Chivalry by Neil Gaiman was an enjoyable graphic novel about an older woman who finds The Holy Grail in a charity shop and what happens after she brings it home.
    — Sweeten the Deal by Katie Shepard was an enjoyable contemporary romance about a young woman who, after inheriting two million dollars from her grandmother, hires a male escort to accompany her to the theatre, etc. The escort is an artist who has recently ended a relationship and is in need of funds.
    — The Botanist’s Apprentice by Arden Powell was a historical romance featuring two men who are both botanists and wielders of magic. This was an enjoyable short work.
    — An Heiress for Christmas: A M/M Victorian Romance by Samantha SoRelle was a short piece about a Victorian artist who will be disinherited if he does not marry. It was an okay read.
    — For my local book group, I read The Beekeeper’s Apprentice: or, On the Segregation of the Queen (Mary Russell and Sherlock Holmes Book 1) by Laurie R. King; this was an enjoyable mystery featuring a very intelligent young woman (from about ages 15 to 19) who meets Sherlock Holmes and ultimately partners with him to solve cases.
    — I also finished The Name Drop by Susan Lee; this young adult novel features a young Korean man (heir to a company) and a young Korean-American woman. Both have the same Korean name and both are hired as summer interns at his family’s company. She works as an executive intern while he is in with the rank and file. They realize the mix up quickly, and events (and romance) unfold. This was a pleasurable read, but I did put it down for a month mid-book so it wasn’t that compelling.
    — reread two old favorites,
    The Goblin Emperor by Katherine Addison and Murder In Thrall (A New Scotland Yard Mystery Book 1)
    by Anne Cleeland.

    — Alawahea (The Azellian Affairs Book 1) by Sara L. Daigle was an enjoyable contemporary fantasy about a young woman and her involvement with a group of aliens visiting earth as exchange students. The aliens look like humans but have (unannounced) psychic powers; their planet also has very different cultural mores. I might read on in the series.
    — I read two contemporary romances by the same author and enjoyed them both.
    ** Superfan: A Hockey Romance (Brooklyn Hockey Book 3) by Sarina Bowen features two people (a singer and a hockey goalie) who make a connection and then are reunited several years later.
    ** Good as Gold by Sarina Bowen features long ago friends who reunite years later. The recently divorced heroine has decided to pursue becoming a single parent, and the hero is willing to help.
    — I also read an illustrated book which was a combination of American history, food, and art: And the Pursuit of Happiness by Maira Kalman.

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    • Thanks, Kareni — a great list, as always. You reminded me, I have the first two Andrea K Höst’s books, but they were on my old kindle that died and I don’t recall whether I read them or not. So I’ve just reloaded them.
      And Sarina Bowen is an auto-buy for me. That whole hockey series is a favorite that I have reread several times.

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        • Kareni, I read the first one )it was already on my kindle) and while I enjoyed it, I’m not sure I’ll read on. I liked it and like the author’s voice, but I’m not sure I want to read 5 more books, and still not know how it’s all resolved. But we’ll see.

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  2. I read The No-Show last year, & yes, it’s almost impossible to describe & ambushes the reader at regular intervals.

    This month I’ve read a few, including:

    – The Game Of Hearts (Felicity Day): non-fiction, about the lives & relationships of real-life Regency women. 100% recommend for readers of Regency fiction

    – Sylvester (Georgette Heyer), as audiobook: not my favourite Heyer, but one of my favourite of her audiobooks because the narrator (Nicholas Rowe) does such a great job with the voices. Also because it includes one of my favourite Heyer double entendres using the word ‘mount’

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    • Thanks, GingerCat — that The Game Of Hearts (Felicity Day) sounds very interesting. I’ll check it out. And Sylvester is always a good read, I think. I haven’t heard the audio, but a good narrator can make or break a book, I think.

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  3. @Kareni, I love Maira Kalman! I think I recall reading “And the Pursuit of Happiness”.
    I’ll just mention the highlights of my last 2 month’s reading: first, “Silver Lady” by Mary Jo, it was a lovely story with a touch of fantasy, and I’m looking forward to the next one in the series.
    Then I went on a bit of a sci-fi binge, I loved “A Civil Campaign” by Lois McMaster Bujold. A great romantic comedy/sci fi combo! Then another Bujold that was new to me “Ethan of Athos”, it was one of her slighter efforts but always enjoyable. Several more sci-fi books by Michelle Diener: “Breakaway”, which is the first in her Verdant String series, and “Interference” and “Insurgency”, which are prequel novellas. Diener is great in any genre, but I do wish she’d go back to her Rising Wave fantasy series, or better yet, her Tudor-era historical romance/suspense novels!
    Most recently, I just finished “The Lily of Ludgate Hill” by Mimi Matthews. Second chance/enemies to lovers are not my favorite tropes, so I had to get past that, but once the hero and heroine were fighting on the same side and not against each other, I loved it, and I also loved the appearances of the previous characters in the series.
    There are several authors who write Harlequin Historicals, that I always keep an eye out for, like Louise Allen and Marguerite Kaye. Now I’ve got a new(to me) one to add to the list, Lara Temple. I very much enjoyed “Lord Hunter’s Cinderella Heiress” and plan to dive into Temple’s backlist.

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  4. One new-to-me author that I enjoyed was T L Swan. Her audio book ‘The Takeover’ has a Dominating boss of a large company falling for the widowed owner of a much smaller strugling company. Marriage proposal is thwarted when adoption issues arrise and it seems that the author has dug herself into a very deep hole. God has to be invoked to save the HEA – could be a lesson here for other authors! LOL

    Great book suggestions and some are now on my audio wish list ….. Thanks

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  5. Mary Balogh is one of my favorite authors, but even if I hadn’t read the first two books in the Ravenswood series, I would have found the amount of exposition in the new Always Remember a tad much – is that just me?

    Other than that, January was given over to contemporary romances by Pippa Grant – I didn’t intend to do that, but once I read The Worst Wedding Date, I had to follow the other characters’ stories. That meant laughing and sighing my way through The Gossip and The Grump; The Last Eligible Billionaire; and The Bride’s Runaway Billionaire! Each is a standalone, but stories of 3 women dubbed “Ugly Heiresses” in their youth, plus a fourth heroine who rescues anyone and anything, and the 4 men they love, create a wonderful, smart, funny, sexy world. And it’s a world in which animals play a significant role, too – from a kitten named Fred to a dog named Marshmallow to ( my favorite) a chicken named Yolko Ono!

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    • Constance, that is a seriously funny name for a chicken! I’ve yet to read ALWAYS REMEMBER, but several of Balogh’s more recent books have had much more about other family members than I care to read.

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      • I do agree, Kareni, and wonder why she feels it’s necessary. Her Bedwyn series, which I’ve read several times, had any such history incorporated into the current story.

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        • Constance and Kareni, ii agree with both of you. Mary Balogh’s Ware Family is not capturing my interest as much as the earlier Bedwyns, teachers of Miss Martin’s School, or war survivors.

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    • Thanks, Constance. I didn’t particularly notice the amount of exposition on Mary Balogh’s book, but then, I do tend to skip over some passages when I’m reading, the brain discarding everything except what I want to know.
      I’ve enjoyed Pippa Grant too. Love those animal names, especially the chicken. My cousin kept a small flock of chickens and she called all of them Maude.

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  6. I just finished Emily Wilde’s Map of the Otherlands. It’s wonderful. Susan, if you liked the first you will probably like this one too. I can’t wait for book 3.
    I also read a Beth O’Leary book, but it was The Wake-Up Call. It was cute and reminded me a lot of romantic Christmas movies. It used the big misunderstanding as a plot device though, and that drives me crazy. 🙂

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    • Thanks, Misti — After Susan did her rave review, a bunch of the wenches bought it. I haven’t read it yet. I’ve also enjoyed most of Beth O’Leary’s books too. As for “the big misunderstanding” — it depends on how well it’s handled. It can look contrived in a book, but in real life, people often shy away from confronting difficult conversations.

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  7. I know this wonderful post is for those who read fiction lately.

    I can only contribute non-fiction this time: “My Name is Barbra” the autobiography of Barbra Streisand. It’s an intense and almost 1,000-page read of understanding and coming to terms with family dynamics that she overcomes, and dealing with those in her area of the arts that are a mix of supportive, users and liers. She learns to rise above deep insecurities, to go from negative relationships to a loving marriage of over 25 years. She is a deeply gifted soul that triumphs over many fears, now and going forward.

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    • Thanks, Patricia, I don’t read many biographies, but this one sounds fascinating. And very long! Thanks for sharing. I’m sure quite a few wenchly readers will enjoy it. Barbra Streisand is a bit of a legend of our times, isn’t she?

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  8. I started off with Miss Austen Investigates by Jessica Bull. This is going to be a series I think. It took me a few chapters to get into it but once I did it was good fun. I liked how the author brought Jane’s family to life.
    Then Death in the Stocks by Georgette Heyer for my GoodReads monthly book read. I hadn’t read this one before and enjoyed it, even though there were a lot of unlikable characters in it.
    The Wartime Book Club by Kate Thompson was up next and what a fantastic read!! I loved it! Set on the Island of Jersey during the Occupation, it put me through every emotion you can think of. Well worth a read.
    Then A Murder is Announce by Agatha Christie, another GR group read. I knew this story already and I listened on audio this time. Very enjoyable.
    Then The Time Machine by H G Wells. A first read for me but I have enjoyed the films over the years. The early chapters sort of lost me, they were so technical but after that it was a good read.
    So right now I’m in the middle of The Novels of Georgette Heyer by Jennifer Kloester. I picked it up to flick through and suddenly found myself at the start and hooked! It’s a great read and I’m loving it.
    That’s my round up. I’m off now to look up the de Burghs series mentioned above as I really like the sound of it.

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    • Thanks, Teresa for that lovely varied list. I’m planning to check out The Wartime Book Club by Kate Thompson. Is it similar to The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society?
      I’m glad you’re enjoying Jen Kloester’s book too.

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      • I suppose there are some similarities Anne. It’s based on a true story. If you liked Literary Potato Peel Pie Society you’ll enjoy this. I thought it was a wonderful read. At the end of the book she tells us about some of the real people it all happened to. It also gives great further references if the reader is interested in following up on any of the history. Hope you enjoy it as much as I did!

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  9. I’ve been reading books for book clubs and reading challenges and they have been mostly…okay. Definitely nothing to write home about and I would have DNF’d a few of them except, well,

    Though I have had some nice comforting rereads. I too, just love, love, Trisha Ashley’s Twelve Days of Christmas.

    I just reread Beauvallet by Georgette Heyer and it popped into my head that it is a cross between a rom com and a swashbuckling adventure. I hadn’t read it in a LONG time.

    The one new book I read that I enjoyed was Secrets of Wycliffe Manor by Patricia Rice. Definitely want to continue on with that series but I have to wait until my February budget starts before I can buy another book (grin).

    Karin, I’ll look for Lara Temple at the library. I’m always on the look out for a fun new author. I also recommend Jenni Fletcher from the Harlequin Historical line.

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    • Thanks, Vicki, yes, for several of the wenches Trisha Ashley’s Twelve Days of Christmas is a regular December reread. But she’s also written some other lovely books.
      And Pat’s series that starts with Secrets of Wycliffe Manor is another series to sink into, I agree.
      As for DNF’s I’m getting more and more that I stop reading after 3 or 4 chapters. I really should be more careful about reading the excerpt on line before I buy, but I rarely do.

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  10. A new series by Mary Kingswood, The Chaplain’s Legacy, came out last month. That Bonesetter Woman by Frances Quinn was an interesting read, set in the 18th century, covering what a perfectly capable woman wouldn’t be allowed to do ie be a bonesetter. I really enjoyed Jane Dunn’s first two books but got bogged down in the one recommended here. And having been disappointed by Mary Balogh’s new series, I didn’t bother getting the latest one. However I did find Anne’s Devil Rider series which gave me a very enjoyable week’s reading and can’t believe they hadn’t come my way previously! And Christina’s latest is in in my TBR pile.

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    • Thanks, Alice for those recommendations. I haven’t read the Jane Dunn one either.
      Am very glad you enjoyed my Devil Rider books — thank you. And thought I haven’t yet read Christina’s latest book, I have read nearly all of her previous ones, and read and enjoyed most of them long before I met her as a wench. In fact it might be time for me to have a reread.

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  11. One of the small frustrations of his blogging platform is that I can’t go in and correct my typos, which I could with the previous system. So apologies to Karin (for the leading off of her n) and in the comment above it should have read And though I haven’t yet read Christina’s latest book (not thought.)

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  12. I share with Mary Jo a great admiration of Robert Heinlein’s work, especially the books known as his “juvies.” When I read them as a teen, I thought no other author quite captured the powerless, trapped feeling of being a teen as wel – when you know you’re old enough to understand and do many adult things, but the adults still treat you like a child and do all the decision making.

    I did think Heinlein had flaws, particularly in depicting male/female relationships – too often for me his women were cutesy, coy and manipulative, like a bad 1950s situation comedy. But when he was on his game he wrote women with some understanding; I am thinking of Dr. Edith Stone in The Rolling Stones. She was a mom but she was also a doctor and she understood her duty to her profession. Her husband understood this also. She was rather quiet but nothing seemed to be settled in the family until she weighed in. She seemed very real to me and an amazing role model, given the 1950s era she was created in.

    As to what I’ve read this month, nothing particularly memorable, but I did enjoy an old Harlequin regency called An Escapade and An Engagement by Annie Burrows, and Kitty and the Midnight Hour, by Carrie Vaughn, the first in the Kitty Norville series, about a late night radio show host who is also a werewolf. The werewolf and vampire cultures living among normal humans were well worked out.

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    • Thanks, Janice. I haven’t read much Heinlein (that I recall) but I do remember a few teenage boys that I taught discovering him and glomming everything he wrote. Thanks for mentioning old Harlequin regencies — there are some real gems in there.

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  13. I’m glad you enjoyed book one by Andrea Höst! The first three books tell a pretty complete story, Anne. The fourth, Gratuitous Epilogue, was an add on (though a welcome one for fans such as me). The fifth is actually Cass’ mother’s story while the sixth is a short piece dealing with characters from a different world who have come to Muina.

    Reply

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