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.