Set in 12th century France and England, this stunning, richly detailed novel was inspired by poet Marie de France and Eleanor of Aquitaine, Queen of France and later Queen of England. At 17, Marie is living at Eleanor’s court, but is considered unmarriageable due to her great height, lack of beauty, and uncertain parentage. She’s well educated and ran her mother’s estate for two years. Eleanor sends Marie off to England to be prioress at a rundown, impoverished abbey, with twenty nuns. After reluctantly settling in, Marie rides her warhorse to evict a family who refuse to pay rent, installing a family who can supply the abbey with much needed food. When poetry sent to Eleanor doesn’t have the desired result, Marie helps improve the abbey and its lands, with sheep, a scriptorium, and even a labyrinth. Visions of Mary often guide her to new and bigger projects. Later, as Abbess, Marie makes enemies but has plans to make her island of women safe, secure, and often pleasurable. Readers will be swept up in the tales of abbey life and the bold ideas Marie introduces. To read more about strong women in religious life in the Middle Ages, try The Joys in My Life by Alys Clare, Hild by Nicola Griffth, or the delightful Sister Frevisse mysteries by Margaret Frazer, including The Bastard’s Tale. Two of many novels about Eleanor of Aquitaine are The Secret Eleanor by Cecelia Holland and Captive Queen by Alison Weir.
I recently read a historical romantic comedy and two contemporary romantic comedies, or rom-coms, and enjoyed reading all three books. If you’re in the mood for some light, entertaining reads, check out one or more of these titles.
Hugh Standish, an earl in 1820s England, has a matchmaking mother who lives in America with his stepfather. He doesn’t think he’d make a good husband, and invents a fiancée named Miranda to keep his mother from finding him a real wife. His letters about the fictional Miranda’s serious illness and father’s death have delayed any wedding plans, but Hugh has run out of excuses. When Hugh helps a lovely engraver collect money she’s owed, he is stunned to learn her name is Minerva. Quite soon, Miranda and two two younger sisters are visiting his country estate, along with an actress hired to play their mother, getting lessons in etiquette and fine dining, when his family arrives early. Hugh’s mother is surprised to learn that Miranda can’t ride a horse or sing, and is getting suspicious. Some very funny scenes delight the reader while Hugh and Miranda bicker, and of course, fall in love. Readers of Julia Quinn’s Smythe-Smith quartet will likely enjoy.
Kate Sweet, an event planner known for weddings with an “aww” moment, is asked by her best friend to fill in and organized horror writer Drake Matthews’ book launch. The pair are uncomfortable spending time together, especially after a disastrous introduction. Drake is secretly writing a historical romance, while super-organized Kate is struggling with her plans for the elaborate book party. While I’ve never heard of a book launch quite so elaborate, it makes for entertaining reading. Kate and Drake’s chemistry is fun to read about, especially as the both deny their mutual attraction.
Another pretend relationship turns friends into lovers when April Parker asks Mitch Malone for help with some home improvements so she can sell her house and move to a nearby city. Mitch, a high school gym teacher and coach, is known for his performances in a kilt at the local renaissance Faire, yet needs a pretend girlfriend for a big family dinner. When Mitch’s family unexpectedly visits the Faire, April steps in again, and somehow their relationship doesn’t feel so fake anymore. Well Played and Well Met are the earlier rom-coms set at Willow Creek’s Renaissance Faire.
Readers of historical English mysteries are invited to visit Cheltenham Spa in the summer of 1816, where Jane Austen and her sister Cassandra arrive to spend a fortnight so that Jane can drink the local mineral waters and relax. The summer is very cool and rainy after the volcanic explosion in Indonesia the year before. The sisters find the mineral waters unpalatable, and some of the fellow boarders at their rooming house are not relaxing company, including the invalid Rose Williams and the Garthwaites, who do not care to share the communal sitting room. Jane’s friend and admirer Raphael West (first introduced in the delightful mystery Jane and the Twelve Days of Christmas) is in town and escorts the sisters to a costume ball where a fire breaks out and a body is found. Jane turns sleuth to solve the murder and tries to decide how to deal gently with her gentleman admirer. Delightful dialogue, appealing main characters, and an excellent sense of place make for enjoyable reading, even if Jane is not in the best of health. Readalikes include Without a Summer by Mary Robinette Kowal, The Secrets of Wishtide by Kate Saunders, and Death Comes to the Village by Catherine Lloyd.
The author of Why We Buy: The Science of Shopping turns his attention to how we shop for food and drink. An environmental psychologist, Underhill is an engaging and authoritative writer on merchandising and trends, focusing here mostly on grocery stores and farmers’ markets. Readers who would enjoy a behind the scenes tour of a trendy grocery store, one that will give you recipe ideas for unusual produce, or wonder just how many bananas Walmart sells, will enjoy this short and hopeful look at the future of food. Perhaps your grocery store will soon start growing herbs, tomatoes, and berries in their parking lot. Or maybe all you’ll shop for in-person is produce, meat, and dairy, with packaged good being delivered automatically to your car while you browse. Some coffee shops now serve alcoholic beverages, and more locally grown or produced foods are headed soon to big box stores near you. Underhill talks to Instagram food influencers and surveys coworkers about how their food shopping has changed during the pandemic. Informal and conversational, this is a fascinating look at the future of food and drink. Grocery : the Buying and Selling of Food in America by Michael Ruhlman is a good readalike.
In 1942, the Ito family are forced to evacuate from southern California to the Manzanar Internment Camp. In 1943, older daughter Rose is relocated to Chicago. When Aki, 20, and her parents arrive in Chicago in 1944, they learn that Rose has just died. As they grieve for Rose, settle into a tiny apartment, then look for work, Aki is obsessed with learning about Rose’s life in the city. She meets with her former roommates and a friend from California, and reads Rose’s diary. Aki is welcomed by the Japanese American community in Chicago, fortunately finding work at the Newberry Library, and makes a few friends, including Art, who has a welcoming family. But her quest to find the truth behind Rose’s death is dangerous. Life for Japanese Americans in Chicago during World War II is well-researched and richly detailed. Aki is an appealing young sleuth, and I’d enjoy reading more about Aki and her family. Suggested for historical fiction and mystery readers. Readalikes include other mysteries by Hirahara including Grave on Grand Avenue, Tallgrass by Sandra Dallas, Daughter of Moloka’i by Alan Brennert, and When the Emperor Was Divine by Julie Otsuka.
Carpenter, actor, comedian and author Nick Offerman narrates the audio version of his new memoir. In 2019 and 2020 he travels to Glacier National Park to hike with two famous friends and a guide, visits a sheep farm in England where he helps rebuild a stone wall, and buys an Airstream trailer and travels from California to Texas, Oklahoma, and Illinois with his wife Megan Mullally and their dog. During his travels, Offerman shares amusing anecdotes, reflects on nature, public lands and their origin, the pandemic, common sense, and food. This is an entertaining and thought provoking read, with perhaps a bit too much time on his soap box. Excellent armchair travel with plenty of humor to enliven the book. Readalikes include the author’s Paddle Your Own Canoe, A Walk in the Woods and The Road to Little Dribbling by Bill Bryson, The Shepherd’s Life by James Rebanks, and The Longest Road by Philip Caputo.
Please join the Tuesday Evening Book Group at 7 pm on January 25 for our in-person discussion of The Smallest Lights in the Universe, a memoir by Sara Seager. Sara is an astrophysicist who searched for exoplanets, but her remarkable personal story makes this book memorable and extraordinary. See my earlier review here. Copies of the book are available for check out at the Circulation Desk. eBook and eAudiobook copies are available at Media on Demand/Libby or at eRead Illinois. Please register online or at the Computer Help Desk. Hope to see you here!
A local bookseller always has a copy of Pilcher’s Winter Solstice on her display of favorite winter reads, even though it was published in 2000. The enduring appeal of the late author of The Shell Seekers and September is shown in this new collection of short stories that are delightful for cozy winter reading, perhaps with tea and a scone or hot cocoa and a cookie. If you’re in the mood for a heartwarming read, but too busy to read a long novel, enjoy a story or two at a sitting, each with a pen and ink illustration. These stories are set at life’s turning points; a holiday, a move, a visit home, the beginning or ending of a romance. They have a strong sense of place, resilient women, attractive men, and often a seaside setting, with a dog, horse, or young child to add appeal. This title is also available from Media on Demand/Libby as an eBook and a downloadable audiobook. Readalike authors include Maeve Binchy, Josie Silver, and Jenny Colgan.
Kate Rees was raised on an Oregon cattle ranch, and became a crack shot with a rifle. In 1940, she’s testing rifles in a munitions factory in Scotland’s Orkney Islands when she’s recruited for a special mission in Paris, where she studied on scholarship at the Sorbonne. Mourning her husband, Kate agrees, and almost kills Hitler during his three hour tour in Paris. Why she is sent to Paris, after a very brief training that includes tips for quick disguises, and why she fails are just the background for what comes next. Kate wasn’t the only operative parachuting into France that June, and she makes contact with allies, an injured fellow spy, her former tutor at the Sorbonne, and the intriguing Philippe. While Kate is on the run in a beautifully described Paris, Nazi detective Gunter Hoffman is searching for a sniper, and MI6 handler Stepney is scrambling for options to salvage his operations in France. Readalikes include Munich by Robert Harris, Dragonfly by Leila Meacham, Basil’s War by Stephen Hunter, Under Occupation by Alan Furst, and the mid-20th century spy novels by Helen MacInnes. This stunning and suspenseful historical thriller is almost impossible to put down, and great escapist reading.
Fans of the Howard brothers will enjoy this upbeat, candid memoir of their childhood in show business, including their parents’ improbably journey from Oklahoma to Hollywood. Rance and Jean Howard were both actors, and Rance also did some writing. They never hit the big time, except in their parenting of Ron and Clint. Rance was Ronny’s dialog and acting coach when he was in The Sound of Music and The Andy Griffith Show and when Clint was in Star Trek, and one parent was always on the set, making it challenging when young Clint was filming Gentle Ben in Florida. Rance taught the boys to approach their roles with emotional truth and relatability, understanding their character’s motivation. Sometimes the whole family was on a set together, including the 1970 film Wild Country. They lived modestly, and the boys enjoyed baseball and basketball, with Ron coaching Clint’s basketball team, and Clint showing Henry Winkler how to pitch softball. Ron was bullied a bit in school, and Clint struggled with an addiction to alcohol and drugs, but the family stayed close, working together into their parents’ later years as Ron became a successful director and Clint a much in-demand character actor. Full of behind the scenes stories from beloved television shows and movies, this is an entertaining and engaging read.