Pat here, bringing you this month’s hopelessly erratic and eclectic list of what we’ve read and enjoyed lately. I’ve been having fun with earlier Wench recommendations but not finding much new that's interesting. So all I can present to you are a couple of not-quite-cozy mysteries, nary a knitting group or book club among them.
YOUR CHARIOT AWAITS by Lorena McCourtney is a rollicking mystery that doesn’t rely on a small town setting but has great characters, a limousine, a pregnant neighbor, and a dead boyfriend. I’ve been skipping through the middles on every mystery I’ve read lately, but not this one. McCourtney keeps me highly entertained all the way through. Even the limo has a personality by the end. Cleverly crafted, and I didn’t guess whodunit until almost the end.
THE POT THIEF WHO STUDIED EINSTEIN by J. Michael Orenduff : OK, I bought this one for the title and maybe the setting. The protagonist sells Anasazi pots, which he might just occasionally dig up without reporting because if no one knows they’re there, who’s he hurting, right? So it’s that kind of morality directing the mystery—someone conned him out of his rightful money, so it’s okay to break into that someone’s house, even if he’s not entirely certain he’s in the right house. Albuquerque is a great setting. The protag’s best friend is a winner with some really good lines. And I really didn’t care who killed whom but enjoyed the ride.
I've read some great books this month. First up was our own Wench Andrea Penrose's new Regency mystery, MURDER ON BLACK SWAN LANE, which I have waxed lyrical about in our interview here! https://tinyurl.com/ybtwrfol That was a great treat!
Next up was THE WOMAN IN THE SHADOWS by Carol McGrath. This was an enthralling historical novel about Elizabeth Cromwell, the wife of Henry VIII's minister Thomas Cromwell. It was fascinating to see a familiar story through Elizabeth's eyes and Carol writes absolutely beautifully about the Tudor world in elegant and rich detail. The book is out in August.
Finally, something a bit different, THE MIDNIGHT QUEEN, by Sylvia Hunter. I came across this by happy chance and now I'm glomming the series. It takes place in an alternative-history world of Britain and France, somewhere that feels a bit Regency or Victorian and a whole lot magical. It reminded me of Philip Pullman's His Dark Materials trilogy in the way that it weaves an extraordinary world that feels different and familiar at the same time. Gray, a student magician, gets caught up in all manner of dark deeds and joins forces with Sophie, the daughter of his college professor, to foil a nefarious plot. All the characters are well drawn and interesting, and Gray and Sophie's developing relationship is sweet and romantic. I loved the mix of myth and history and magic!
This month has been a bit hectic, what with doing promo for my new Regency-set mystery, MURDER ON BLACK SWAN LANE and copyedits for the second book in the series, MURDER AT HALF MOON GATE, which will be out next spring. Talk about having my brain spinning in circles! But I did manage to sneak in some reading time.
A few months ago I talked about THE DARK DAYS CLUB by Alison Goodman in this column, a Regency paranormal which I really enjoyed. So I grabbed the second book in the series, THE DARK DAYS PACT, and was equally engaged! Mixing meticulous Regency research with a very creative alternate world (in a nutshell, there are a type of human called Deceivers, undetectable to normal people, who can corrupt humankind. Only Reclaimers can fight them) it continues the story of Lady Helen, who been brought up as a perfectly proper Regency lady. When she’s suddenly told she has special powers and must lead the Reclaimers against a new and terrible Deceiver Power, she’s aghast at having to leave life as she knows it and take on a strange new world—but feels she can’t refuse. (there’s a backstory with the death of her parents.) Helen’s inner conflict is wonderfully wrought—having to learn to fight, wear men’s clothing, be aggressive, etc—as is the adventure through Bath as she and her mentor, the mysterious Lord Carlston, are desperately searching for a manuscript that must not fall into enemy hands. I’m not normally a paranormal reader, but this is such an inventive take on the Regency that I was riveted. Book Three is not yet out, but I will glom it when it appears.
Also just started A NATURAL HISTORY OF DRAGONS, which Mary Jo mentioned in this column —and interviewed author Marie Brennan last week on the blog—and I’m loving it! Highly recommended!
While still dealing with the broken right elbow (healing up nicely!), I've had time for more reading (tho sadly less writing). Even so, I've been a scattered reader, picking up and putting down books. . . except for a few standouts. Recently I finished reading one of the best historical novels I've ever read (ever ever), and it's hard to top that. The characters and that utterly complete world will be with me for a long time -- Alice Hoffman's THE DOVEKEEPERS, which I mentioned before, when I started it. For me, it became one of those rare novels, a deep and compelling and profound read. I came away grateful for the experience, grateful too for my own safe, ordinary modern life. Extraordinary. Gird up your reader's courage and go for this unforgettable book. I learned so much as reader, writer and person.
Being in the mood for another big, deep historical, and naturally gravitating to earlier centuries over later ones, I finally settled on THE LAST KINGDOM, Bernard Cornwell's first book in his Saxon Tales series, which I've been meaning to read for some time. Many people have recommended the TV series to me as outstanding, but I wanted to read the books before I try the tele-version. Cornwell is an absolute and undisputed master. Even more fascinating is that he based the story on an Uhtred of Bamburgh who was his own ancestor. Bravo. Amazing.
I so loved Sophia Bennett's LOVE STORY that I'm now reading THE LOOK, a story of two sisters, one suddenly a teen model and feeling all gangly and out of sorts in that world, while the other is facing the struggle of cancer. There's humor, romance, natural characters and such a sense of love throughout. Just, well, lovely, and a nice change of pace from the big historicals!
I have a fondness for English contemporaries with witty dialogue and gentle low-key romances, and this month my favorite was Jane Lovering's LITTLE TEASHOP OF HORRORS.
I've mentioned Jane Lovering before. Her debut novel PLEASE DON’T STOP THE MUSIC won the 2012 UK Romantic Novel of the Year and the Best Romantic Comedy Novel award from the UK Romantic Novelists’ Association.
In LITTLE TEASHOP OF HORRORS, the heroine and her best friend run a teashop in the grounds of a National Trust type English stately home. The hero is an unusual type for a hero — very socially awkward, he flies raptors for the entertainment of the visitors. There are dodgy doings and lots of minor character intrigues and a fine, though low-key romance — a most enjoyable read.
On the recommendation of a friend I read TRULY, by Ruthie Knox — a contemporary romance set in New York. A few small quibbles about the heroine's trusting nature, but nevertheless an enjoyable and entertaining read.
PERSUASION, by Jane Austen — one of many rereads — I first read it in my teens. I'd planned to pull out quotes from it for chapter headings in my latest book, but as usual I became absorbed in the novel and forgot to hunt for quotes.
I've also been reading some books by Elizabeth Cadell — my mother used to read these, and as a teen I would too, if I'd run out of my own reading matter. The books were mostly written before I was born, but they've been republished as e-books by Cadell's heirs, and I was curious. They're quirky little books, but quite enjoyable.
I was vaguely aware of the name Megan Whalen Turner, but had no idea what she wrote. Then her recent release, THICK AS THIEVES, turned up in a pile of books pictured on John Scalzi's blog, . He periodically posts a picture of piled new books and ARCs and asks readers what interests them. Which is how I discovered Marie Brennan's wonderful Lady Trent dragon stories.
And now--Megan Whalen Turner! She's considered a YA author, though really, I think she's for any age. Her Queen's Thief series is set in a fictionalized version of the Eastern Mediterranean around 500 BC or so, I think. Three small nations, Eddis, Attolia, and Sounis, are more or less equivalent to Greece and a couple of neighboring nations, while to the east looms the huge and predatory empire of the Medes. (Yes, there were Medes historically.)
After some debate, I decided to read the new release, THICK AS THIEVES, first because it looked as if it stood more or less on its own, which it did. I'll get back to that later. But I enjoyed the book so much that I went back to the beginning and read the first book, THE THIEF. And then the second, THE QUEEN OF ATTOLIA. I'm now most of the way through the third book, THE KING OF ATTOLIA, after which I'll have only book 4, A CONSPIRACY OF KINGS. And then I'll be sad the series is over and I'll have to let some time go by before I can reread.
The series revolves around Eugenides the Thief, and it begins when he is manacled in a prison in Sounis, having been caught for boasting of his thieving skills. The local magus (a scholar, not a magician) springs him out to march him to another country to steal a sacred object. And the twists and turns begin!
That first book was a Newbery Honoree and MWT has won tons of other awards. The stories are clever and compelling, and she very wisely chooses a different angle into each book. The first book is narrated by Eugenides, Gen to his friends, and you get a sense of what he's like. The next books are in third person and you see him as other people see him. And what you see it a very smart, very twisty character who is very hard to predict. (At one point, it's mentioned that his father had been trying to strangle him and his cousin says that many who know him have often felt so inclined. And these are people who love him!)
As I said, the most recent book, THICK AS THIEVES, is more standalone and takes place mostly in the empire of the Medes. The protagonist, Kamet, is a highly placed slave, the secretary and right hand man to the brother of the heir to the empire. He showed up as a minor character in an earlier book. Even though he's a slave, he's potentially one of the most powerful people in the empire.
Then he's told that his master has been poisoned and Kamet will surely be executed if he's caught. With the aid of an Attolian soldier, he attempts to flee the empire to safety in Attolia. Lots of adventures, but the heart of the story is how a slave learns to be free, and how to trust another man enough to become friends. It's very good and sent me back to the beginning of the series. But if you have a choice, start at the beginning with THE THIEF. <G>
M.C. Beaton may be familiar to Romance readers as Marion Chesney. I discovered her detective Hamish MacBeth as a TV series.
Most usually it's the other way round. Book first, then turning with trepidation to the TV-series-made-from-the-book which is generally disappointing. This time, the TV series was excellent and I decided to try the books.
I’m finishing DEATH OF A TRAVELLING MAN right now. A grifter and thief, travelling the countryside in a converted bus, earns MacBeth's annoyance by disrupting his quiet village. When the man turns up murdered, it's Hamish's job to sort through the small cons that led to his death. Beaton's straightforward prose, a miscellany of colorful characters, details of life in an isolated village on a loch in Scotland, and a carefully unrolling mystery make for a wryly witty and cerebral mystery.
Pat here again: Now that I've started a new TBR list, do you have any great books you'd like to add to it?