Confession time. I really, really enjoy reading/ listening to mysteries and (gasp!) romances. I'm feeling a little less guilty today after reading NPR's and the Washington Post's stories on romance reading. Books are my favourite form of escapism, and sometimes I'm not sure whether I'm listening while I knit or knitting so I can listen. I probably became a reader/listener because I grew up in a household where I was read to every day, always. My grandmother was the reader-in-chief, and she read from her collection of childhood favourites (her own childhood editions in many cases), including Frances Hodgeson Burnett's "The Secret Garden" and "The Little Princess", and the Oz books. I can vividly recollect hiding under the blankets while Dorothy and friends were chased by the head throwing Scootlers. I must have been quite young, aged 3 or 4, because once I could read for myself, Granny was done as a narrator. The habit of forming pictures in my mind was developed, and by the time I was a teenager, knitting had become the perfect accompaniment. While the rest of the family drove off to church on Sunday mornings, I stayed behind knitting and listening to CBC Radio's "Sunday Edition". I still listen to it, 40 years later. And I'm usually knitting while I listen.
(As an aside, I followed Granny's example with my own kids, and have happy memories of the summer when I read the entire Lord of the Rings Trilogy to Isabel, aged 6, and James, aged 9.)
For years, I relied on my local library's audiobooks. The limited selection meant that I often tried out authors I never would have selected otherwise (think Diana Gabaldon). Now, thanks to Audible.com and smartphones, listening is easier than ever. So, here are my top ten favourite books perfect for some light summer entertainment. As the NPR piece points out, not all writing has to be immortal. That said, all the books below are well written by highly intelligent and thoughtful writers. I hope you'll give one or more a try while you stretch out at the cottage with a glass of iced tea and some relaxing knitting.
Mysteries, mostly historical
1. Silver Pigs, by Lindsey Davis. Set in first century Rome and Roman Britain. This is the first of 20 novels in the Didius Falco series by the Oxford educated Davis. It's really more a commentary about modern British society, with the cynical, plebeian Falco falling for Helena Justina, a Senator's daughter. Lots of action, humour, and complex characters, who continue to develop as the series progresses.
2. He Shall Thunder in the Sky, by Elizabeth Peters (aka Barbara Mertz). This is really the fourth in her "Quartet", a set of four Amelia Peabody mysteries that form the heart of the series. Peters, who I heard speak on NPR as well as live at our local Barnes and Noble, received her PhD in archaeology from the University of Chicago's Oriental Institute in an era when women could not get hired in the field. She married, then divorced, then became a much-loved mystery writer until her recent death. She travelled to Egypt, the scene of most of the Peabody series, frequently with her narrator Barbara Rosenblatt. In her NPR interview, Peters admitted that she eventually came to hear Rosenblatt's character voices in her head as she wrote. It should be noted that in an incomparable feat, Rosenblatt manages to do the voice of Peabody's son, Ramses (a nickname) from when he is a small boy through to a grown man. Much of the writing is a parody of the adventure writing of the period (1880s-1920s), but the final book of the Quartet, He Shall Thunder etc, at times takes on a more serious quality when Peabody's comical self assurance gives way to fears and doubts. A roaring good listen, especially if you precede it with The Falcon at the Portal, its immediate predecessor. Also consider reading/ listening to Night Train to Memphis, the best of Peters' Vicky Bliss novels, set in the 20th century and related to the Amelia Peabody series. More Egypt, more romance, and a wonderfully complex relationship between the no-nonsense Vicky and her art thief lover.
3. A Surfeit of Guns, by P.F. Chisholm (pen name of Patricia Finney). Not available in audiobook format at the present time, but a wonderful read. The main character, Sir Robert Carey, was a real person living at the time this Tudor/Stuart mystery/romance is set. This, too, is part of a series by the author, who has a history degree from Oxford.
4.What Remains of Heaven, by C.S. Harris. This is part of her Sebastian St Cyr regency mystery series. As she puts it, think Mr Darcy meets Sherlock. The author, a former history professor, shows off her research in this carefully crafted series, often building plots out of little lacunae in history. (One of her novels is plotted around the fact that there was a gap of several weeks between the outbreak of the American Revolution and when news of it reached England). The series is read by the supremely talented Davina Porter (also the narrator of Outlander, below). How she manages to make Sebastian, Viscount Devlin, drawl so sexily is beyond my comprehension, but I just love his voice!
5. To the Hilt, by Dick Francis. It's really tough to choose just one of his mysteries, there are so many brilliant ones. He's the only male author in this entire list, and perhaps that's because he had the knack of writing and thinking about characters in the way a woman author might. Was it his wife's influence? Whatever the reason, his preference for characters who break the mould of a class-based society while solving difficult problems with courage and resourcefulness makes his books and this one in particular so satisfying.
1. Venetia, by Georgette Heyer. Heyer more or less single-handedly invented the modern Regency romance. She is as close to Austen as it gets, and her characters speak with an unmatched authenticity. Her romances are refreshingly free of the now-mandatory sexy bits, and instead rely on witty dialogue and nuanced manners to move the relationships along. I was introduced to Heyer by my Great Aunt Siddy (actual name Isabel), who frequently had one of Heyer's books on her nightstand. The novels take different forms, from hilarious romps through the countryside, to romance/mysteries, to the bittersweet tones of Venetia, which is apparently a favourite of many, according to NPR's list. The books were out of print for ages, then became available again through (surprise!) Harlequin. Acquaint yourself with Heyer's world for a summer treat.
2. Lord of Scoundrels, by Loretta Chase. I had trouble choosing between this Scoundrels book and Mr Impossible, one of Chase's Carsington Brothers series. The knife-sharp dialogue between Dain and Miss Trent is so memorably entertaining that one read/ listen won't be enough.
3. It Happens in London, by Julia Quinn. Quinn, with her Harvard degree, is proof that smart, educated women read and write romance novels. She writes with a somewhat contemporary voice, with much humour and just the right touch of poignancy. If you like this one, you should follow it up with Ten Things I Love About You, which involves many of the same characters.
4. Outlander, by Diana Gabaldon. This is another author I've heard speak in person. The book and series defy categorization, but are beauifully written, and narrated by the ever-magical Davina Porter. Better than the TV series, in my opinion. BTW, I chose not to watch the last episode of the latter, out of fear that the graphic sexual violence would be too traumatizing. Sometimes, you can handle these elements better in book format. The time travel element would have kept me from giving this a try if it hadn't been the only set of audio cassettes left on the library shelf back in the days when we were still using those. I was hooked. Try the spinoff Lord Grey novels for an equally good read. I'm sure I'm not the only person to have had my view of gay men altered forever by Gabaldon's fascinating portrayal of a lifestyle which at the time was extremely dangerous.
5. Lord of Darkness, by Elizabeth Hoyt. OK, this one has some seriously erotic scenes, but that's not what the book, or the series is really about. I love the period, the 1730s, which is so well portrayed in all its excess, and the story is touchingly poignant. The entire Maiden Lane series is delightful, in spite of, or perhaps because of its fairy tale mix of romance and gritty realism. This is my fave from the series.
My biggest beef with the last category? The covers. Why do publishers insist on ridiculous covers featuring semi-naked men and historically inaccurately dressed women? If they think these are a turn-on, they're wrong. Amazingly, only Harlequin has managed to come up with charmingly tasteful covers for its new editons of the Heyer novels, thank goodness!
P.S. Fingerless gloves available now on Ravelry; I'll do a post about them tomorrow.