Saturday, October 3, 2020

My September Reading

After the personal tumult of August, September was relatively quieter. I cautiously breathed deeper each day with gratitude in my heart each night. With a wee bit more time on hand, I attended a few events happening in my city and one in DC. Two of the most memorable ones were the Pongo Poetry Project's celebration with keynote by the sublime Naomi Shihab Nye and the National Book Festival organized by the Library of Congress.

Naomi Shihab Nye was my new discovery in August, and since then, I have picked up a few of her poems here and there, hoping to pick up one of her many collections. Pongo's mission is to take poetry into spaces for troubled youth: detention centers, transition houses, etc. in the hope that poetry will allow them self-expression to help them process their pain and their situation. I was delighted to find that I knew two of the speakers: one was my oldest's middle school English teacher and the other I know from a writing class we took two decades ago. Nye, the Young People's Poet Laureate, is well-known for working with troubled youth so her talk about her work and her poetry was especially meaningful to me.

The best events at the book festival were the interview of children's book author Mo Willems by the Librarian of Congress, Dr. Carla Hayden and the talk by YA author Jason Reynolds. I read Stamped: Racism, Antiracism, and You by Reynolds, adapted from Stamped from the Beginning by Dr. Ibram X. Kendi, this July and was blown away by the stories and the prose. So it was exciting to listen to Reynolds, the National Ambassador of Young People’s Literature, talk at the festival. He is an even better orator than writer and that is saying something. I transcribed his talk in full and was fascinated by his facility with language and thought to create images in your mind. He's a persuasive storyteller, and it showed.

Girl Gone Viral by Alisha Rai
Category: Contemporary Romance
Comments: [CW: Past abuse, assault, body image, kidnapping, nightmares, panic attacks, war PTSD]

Katrina King-Arora, a Thai American former model, is now an angel investor and a recluse. She had escaped her abusive father, who used to also be her manager, by marrying an older, kindly man who has now left her widowed. She has always struggled with anxiety her whole life due to her father, but her mental health struggles became more intense after being kidnapped a few years ago. As a result, she considers herself lucky to have a coterie of female friends, her “found” family, who get her and support her.

Katrina is highly circumspect about her privacy, but one day, she drops her guard at a crowded café and allows a stranger to share her table but repeatedly refuses to go on a date with him. Unbeknownst to her, someone falsely livetweets her interactions as a budding romance under the hashtag #cafebae, which quickly catches the attention of the denizens of Twitter. This lands her in physical danger, and her latent panic disorder rears its ugly head.

Jasvinder “Jas” Singh, with a mixed Punjabi Indian and Mexican ancestry, is a former soldier who now uses his considerable skills in his work as a bodyguard. Behind the scenes of his new job, he struggles to overcome the PTSD he suffers from his time in the military. Currently, he is Katrina’s bodyguard. To escape the fallout from the twitterstorm, Jas suggests that he and Katrina retreat to his family’s remote farm in Northern California to lie low for a while and hope people’s short-term memories will allow the stay to be short as well. Katrina seizes on this chance to escape the limelight.

Rai has done an excellent job of portraying how these two people suffering from severe mental health issues work through them and learn to manage them even as they lead fulfilling lives. Rai’s characters’ positivity towards their illnesses and normalization of therapy in their everyday lives allows readers dealing with these issues to feel “seen,” while offering hope for a better future for themselves. To me, the sensitivity and delicacy of Rai’s portrayal of these aspects of her protagonists’ lives is the heart of the story. My review is here.

Ties that Tether by Jane Igharo
Category: Contemporary Romance
Comments: "He’s my everything. He’s my lifeline," the heroine says to the hero. "You’re the light of my world," the hero says to the heroine. What can be more heartfelt declarations of love than these?

Nigerian-Canadian Azere Izoduwa works at Xander in Toronto, North America’s top advertising agency. She was born in a Nigerian village and immigrated to Canada with her mother and sister at the age of twelve. Spanish Canadian Rafael Castellano is in the process of moving back to Toronto from NYC where he spent a few years. His time in NYC is something that he adamantly refuses to speak about with anyone, even his close family. Azere and Rafael meet when Azere escapes another date setup by her mother and ends up in the hotel bar feeling out of sorts and a bit reckless. Some conversation and a hot kiss later, their instant connection translates into a one night stand. Only...Azere ends up pregnant. And Rafael ends up working for Xander.

The best part of this book for me was Azere and her mother’s relationship. It is so fraught with the immigration experience. Her mother wants to hold on to what she knows, the memories and experiences with which she came to Canada and which she is so afraid her daughter will forget. And in forgetting the culture, she will forget her father and lose all that made Azere Izoduwa an Edo Nigerian. But her mother has never understood how difficult the first few days and weeks and months were for Azere when she first immigrated to Canada. At that age, acceptance of her peers meant having to conform to the cultural norms. She had to adopt new customs, behave in new ways, and think of herself differently, all of which were threatening to her mother. My review is here.

Get a Life, Chloe Brown by Talia Hibbert
Category: Contemporary Romance
Comments: [CW: former abusive relationship, abandonment by people, chronic illness not taken seriously, racism.]

Jamaican-British Chloe Brown comes from money but has left that world behind. She is now a freelance web designer and loves her job. But her job is made difficult by her fibromyalgia — her life changed significantly when her symptoms began in her 20s and doctors and friends dismissed her illness. She suffers tremendous pain, fatigue and insomnia with their attendant mood issues, and so despite having the support of a loving and close family, she feels that her life has been severely limited and she is stagnating.

I really liked how Chloe Brown takes a near-miss car accident as a wake-up call to really live life. She doesn’t wallow in her fear, but instead decides to jumpstart her life into something that she really wants to look back upon and say, yep, she really achieved what she set out to do. So how do you achieve things? Make a list! List-making is a profoundly philosophical activity. Ask Plato.

Redford “Red” Morgan used to be a talented painter, but he abruptly left the London art world and now spends his days as a superintendent of a building. He suffers from PTSD after suffering emotional abuse and domestic violence in his previous relationship.

Chloe and Red meet when he is ready to rejoin the art world and needs a website that Chloe is willing to code up for him. My review is here.

The Rakess by Scarlet Peckham
Category: Historical Romance
Comments: [CW: death, alcoholism, addiction, stillbirth, abuse, wrongful imprisonment, loss of innocence]

Inspired by Mary Wollstonecraft, Seraphina “Sera” Arden is a passionate liberalist and feminist whose core values are helping other women, who’ve run afoul men and have their lives ruined, and championing rights for women. Despite her beliefs coming under fire from all directions, she stands steadfast by them. Privately, she lives a hedonistic life of drinking and casual sex. She is answerable to no one and responsible to no one. She is a rakess in the true sense of how historical romances view rakes.

Adam Anderson, on the other hand, is abstemious and fastidious. He has a large capacity for empathy, thoughtfulness and caring and generously shares of himself with others. He is a widower whose wife died in childbirth, and he is raising their children on his own. He is an architect who sees politics in his future. Thus, if he were to marry again, he needs someone of exemplary character. Sera and Adam meet on a Cornish cliffside where he is engaged in assessing the architecture of a structure and she mistakes him for her erstwhile lover.

Many romance novels have damaged heroes who are healed by heroines. It is a rare novel that features a truly flawed heroine who has agency to heal herself and is helped along the healing process by the hero. Peckham unflinchingly allows Seraphina to be deeply flawed and still deserving of love and capable of loving. This book is a triumph of the human spirit and draws a bold line under “there is someone special for everyone.” My review is here.

Weekend Fling with the Surgeon by Janice Lynn
Category: This was my first medical category romance, and I liked it. Pediatric cardiologist Dr. McKenzie Wilkes has been dumped one too many times and is heartbroken. Adding salt to the wound, she was supposed to show up to her glamorous cousin's wedding with a fiancé in tow. To save face, she starts searching for escorts. She is caught at it by none other than pediatric cardiothoracic surgeon Dr. Ryder Andrews, who cannot stand the sight of her (or so she believes). To her horror, her mouth asks him if he would be her pretend boyfriend. To her further horror, he says, yes. And so, they're off to Nashville for a weekend of wedding shenanigans.

It's a tender romance with instant attraction but a slow build to the relationship. I enjoyed it. I also liked Ryder and McKenzie's back stories, especially, why Ryder decided to become a heart doctor. I will admit, I had hoped for more medical situations and terminology. We are told about what amazing doctors they are but I would've liked to have been shown more about it. The amount of medical stuff may be toeing the sub-genre line—I don't know that since I am new to the sub-genre—but, personally, medical matters fascinate me, so I had hoped for more. Oeverall, good first medical. I have a second for an official review later this year.

American Love Story by Adrianna Herrera
Category: Contemporary Romance
Comments: This is the third book in Herrera's Dreamers series. I really liked her first book—it was on my Best Books list last year—so I was looking forward to this one, but this was less successful. It has many of the hallmarks of Herrera's books: found family, characters interested in social justice, and some politics.

Haitian-American Patrice is first generation immigrant and an economics professor who joins Cornell's faculty. He is aware that part of his reason for accepting this post is that his summertime hookup, assistant district attorney, Easton, also lives in Ithaca. Easton is interested in picking up where they left off, but Patrice shuts him down initially. How can his research and activism in systemic racism and racial justice be compatible with dating a Caucasian prosecutor. "I have literally spent the last ten years of my life studying and writing about how the system that Easton works every day to uphold is weaponized to keep people like me in chains. How do I reconcile that?"

So while they're dancing around their relationship even as they keep meeting up at friends' houses, when Patrice tells Easton that he’s having trouble finding a permanent place to live, Easton offers him an apartment in the building he owns. So far so good. Herrera has sketched out very interesting characters, and the story is off to a great start. What unfortunately sank the story was the navel gazing and back-n-forth "I want him / I want him not" both characters indulge in over and over again. Some of it is a given in romance as in real life, but this is a large part of the book, which made it tough to read because you want the characters to move on and grow and mature. While the other stakes in the story are really high—immigration, racial profiling, and police harassment—the romance is not as well developed as I usually expect of Herrera.

Governess Gone Rogue by Laura Lee Guhrke
Category: Historical Romance
Comments: This book is the third book in Guhrke's Dear Lady Truelove series. I haven't read a Guhrke in a long time, and what I had read in the past I had liked, so I picked this one up. It is uneven and makes certain jumps and leaps that made is less successful for me.

Amanda's father wanted a boy and reared her as such by giving her a fine education and sending her to Oxford. Teaching is her love and joy in life—living by her brain is what she wants to do. So she'd been happy teaching at a respectable girl's school until she innocently fell for a bounder, lost her reputation and lost her job. Now she's on the edge of destitution, when she sees an advert for a male tutor. Naturally, she cuts her hair, binds her breasts, and off she goes to tutor twin hellions. Her disguise is 100 percent successful: her employer, his sons, and his servants are all fooled. The boys, who had previously routed all nannies and tutors, start minding her. All of this is fun and pure Guhrke.

Then one day, she's asked to valet his lordship, and when her hand grazes his chin, he feels instant lust and then after staring at her realizes she's a woman. He instantly fires her, because, by God, a tutor, no matter how good, cannot be a woman, and She.Lied.To.Him., so he cannot trust her. But everyone pleads her case, and he hires her back.

By 50% of the book, he still thought of her as a man. By 67%, he is lusting after her and they are calling each other by their first names. And the remainder of the book then follows along a tried and true governess-nobleman path with increasing lust leading to feelings. Ho hum! Not Guhrke's best. If you wish to try out Guhrke's work, read her older books.

A Rogue of One's Own by Evie Dunmore
Category: Historical Romance
Comments: I'm going to talk at a high level about this book. I loved Dunmore's first book; it was on my Best Books list last year, so I was eagerly looking forward to this book. The characterization is very good, and exactly what I expected of Dunmore. The chemistry between the protagonists is well done. The heroine is very interesting and her story is about suffrage, women rights, feminism, class differences, and equality. Now if the book was purely about the heroine, I'd say this is good book.

However, the biggest problem with this book is its colonialism and "exotic" fetshization. The hero, a white viscount, has a tattoo of a four-armed, blue-skinned, and naked South Asian dancer on his chest done by a white man.

In Hello, Stranger, Lisa Kleypas had a couple of paragraphs of the Kama Sutra "exotic" stuff. SBTB ran a scathing review that led Kleypas to apologize and to change the content in her subsequent editions. I know this because I helped her and her editor work on this. However, in Dunmore's book the offensive portion is extensive and a major plot point. There is no way to "fix" this book. While Dunmore has done research on Hindu mythology and Indian history, she shows a lack of basic understanding of the impact of colonialism on the Indian psyche and what appropriation of a Hindu god means to Hindus. I wish this othering trope of "Indian culture is erotic and exotic" would go away.

Tempestuous April by Betty Neels
Category: Vintage Contemporary Romance
Comments: I was looking for a low-conflict easy book, and this hit all the right buttons...except, well, except, there wasn't much story. She's British and a nurse in a London hospital. She goes on a holiday to The Netherlands at a friend's house and meets a rich doctor. From the first glance, they both realize that the other is The One, but they don't get enough screentime. Despite it, they fall for each other. In so many ways, he tells her he loves her. I really liked how creatively tender he is. Unfortunately, despite being a nurse, she is immature and that does not improve. The hero takes her as is.

It's been a while since I read a Neels book, and I had forgotten how much telling there is with very little showing. I do realize that Neels' stories have the same in broad strokes, but it is in the minutiae that they're different, and that is where the story is. A couple of Neels' stories have worked well for me, but this one didn't. The romance felt cursory, like the author's heart wasn't into it. However, don't take my word for it—it is well-received on Amazon.

Act Like It by Lucy Parker
Category: Contemporary Romance
Comments: This is the third book of our Sunday Twitter Book Club with Mary Lynne (@emmelnie), Kay (@miss_batesreads), and Ros (@ros_clarke). This month we read the first four chapters. I know the deal is that you're supposed to read only the chapters you are disucssing, but I find this book addictive, and once I start reading it, I cannot stop. I read it through and laughed myself silly through it all. I adore Parker's sense of humor and the witty one-liners that her protagonists crack, especially the heroine. Snark is extremely tricky to carry off—in many contemporaries, it verges on the mean from the heroine to the hapless hero, while he is a cinnamon roll. In this book, both protagonists are on par, and he takes what she dishes out on the chin, and she never hits below the belt. Unlike the Grant book below, the power is balanced between them from the beginning to the end, even though he does a lot more work than she in the story. He has problems, but he isn't a problem.

A Lady Awakened by Cecilia Grant
Category: Historical Romance
Comments: I commented in last month's post about this book, the second of our book club reads. I just could not get behind this heroine, despite her having done a tremendous amount of work. I greatly admired Grant's ability to present such a tough protagonist to the reader and then allow the reader to watch her struggle to overcome her worst impulses and qualities to become a person worthy of her own approval and that of someone who starts becoming important to her. I felt sorry for the hero from the begining to the end, but also realized that he is more because she is she. She believes in him, and he grows into his own because of her belief in him. They complement each other, though I would've wanted an easier heroine for him. The power between them will always be imbalanced in her favor, though not as severely imbalanced as in the beginning.

Friday, September 4, 2020

My August Reading

I did the poetry #TheSealeyChallenge on Twitter this month, and I loved it. It was started by poet Nicole Sealey as a way to get people to start buying and reading poetry. I started seven days late, but then posted every day. The challenge was to post a snippet of a poem you've read from a book or chapbook you own while naming the poet, the title of the poem, and the book; tagging the writer; and adding the hashtag and day of the month. There was also a requirement to post the cover of the book and an image of the full poem, but I didn't do that.

Poems for the Moon: Vol 1 by J.R. Rogue
Category: Poetry
Comments: This was an interesting book by Rogue. Instead of his usual full poems, this book contains vignettes—almost like an ideas journal, where they tried out poems or saved stuff they might want to develop later on.

For August 10, for the #TheSealeyChallenge, I had the following entry:

Can we, for tonight,
just be the moon?
Curve into me like that
cheshire grin in the sky?
Press your heart into my back.
Let me forget my own.
–J.R. Rogue @jenR501 Poems for the Moon

Falling Stars by Loretta Chase
Category: Regency Romance Novella
Comments: The setup is lovely—pure traditional Regency. If you're looking for a low-conflict story full of the warmth of the season and familar characters and settings, then this is the story for you. But for me, it lacks the vivacity of a Chase trad with quirky characters.

They have history. They had been madly in love when they were very young. He had an unsavory reputation then and hadn't dared to approach her honorably because he knew her father and the people around her would've rejected his suit. So in desperation, he'd suggested she elope with him. However, at the last minute, she decided against doing this, and to save her reputation and stood him up. He was grief-stricken but over the years, managed to recover and build a life worth reckoning for himself. She married security and wealth almost immediately following her repudiation of his offer and now has twin girls.

They meet at his brother's house for Christmas. She is his brother's wife's friend. I enjoyed his character development into a man who discovers that he likes children, whether they're his nephews or her daughters. I enjoyed watching her becoming more assertive of her likes and wants as the story moves on. While she honored her husband during her marriage, since her widowhood, she has not forgotten her first love. Their meeting rekindles the spark of attraction like the intervening ten years had never occurred.

Chase writes in her afterword that this was her first Christmas story, and it was inspired by a photograph she saw of an elaborately fanciful gatehouse. (In this story, the gatehouse is where the ill-fated couple were to meet to embark on their elopment.) In this book, Chase definitely shows her fetish for white skin, over and over again in varying ways, and it was discomfiting.

The Wrong Mr. Darcy by Evelyn Lozada & Holly Lőrincz
Category: Contemporary Romance
Comments: What could a small-town sports reporter and a highly paid professional basketball player have in common when her job is to report on the games and the scandals of the team?

Hara Isari is a biracial (African-American and Japanese-American) beat reporter at a small-town paper, dreaming of making it to the big leagues as a sportswriter. Thanks to her father, she has gained a love of sports, particularly, basketball, as well as a deep understanding of the ins and outs of the games and how to report on them. She knows she faces an uphill task being a woman in a man’s world—imagine, female reporters making their way into male locker rooms after the games for the chance of an off-the-cuff remark.

Derek Darcy comes from a lot of money. While his father is not quite part of the old-monied class of Bostonians, he is right up there with his snootiness about what is due to his family and class. He despises Derek’s choice to play pro-basketball. He feels that instead of going into a prestigious job, he is falling into the clichéd profession of a black man in sports. Derek is the close childhood friend of a basketball legend, and Hara and Derek meet when she wins a contest to interview the interview-shy legend. My review is here.

You had Me at Hola by Alexis Daria
Category: Contemporary Romance
Comments: From the cover to the last word, this is pure entertainment theater. The high drama, the intense emotions, the impassioned familia, the close-knit relationships, humor and a sexy romance all add up to a satisfying whole.

Jasmine Lin Rodriguez is a soap opera actor who has just landed a lead role in a hot bilingual telenovela called Carmen in Charge. She wants to prove to her family that acting is her dream. Just when she should be celebrating her success, she is dumped by her famous boyfriend and finds herself splashed across the tabloids. Furious, she gets with her cousins to come up with the Leading Lady Plan: leading ladies “don’t need a man to be happy,” they are “whole and happy on their own,” and they are “badass queens making jefa moves.”

Angel Luis “Ashton” Suárez is a man of secrets, and he wants to protect his privacy at all costs. He is also one of the rising stars of telenovelas, and coincidentally, Jasmine’s abuela’s favorite telenovela star. He had been despondent over being killed off his last show, so he was delighted to be cast in the happening Carmen in Charge. He is nearing forty and hopes that this show will finally help him get bigger and better roles.

Jasmine and Ashton meeting on the set of Carmen in Charge in New York sets the story in motion—their meet cute where he spills coffee on her is funny and sweet. My review is here.

The Return of the Disappearing Duke by Lara Temple
Category: Historical Romance
Comments: For some books, you know within the first few pages as you sink into the story that it is going to be very good. Compared to Temple's other books, this is a deeply philosophical book, especially those scenes in the Egyptian desert.

Colonel Raphael, the Duke of Greybourne AKA Mr. Rafe Grey, ran away as a teen from his abusive father and stern, indifferent mother to the army. From there, he became a wanderer and mercenary for hire. At one point he did return to England to support his younger brother and his newborn son. But the death of his nephew sent him out wandering again. At the moment the story begins, he is on the trail of his brother who has disappeared in Egypt.

Cleopatra “Cleo” led a circumspect life until her teen years with her loving mother and largely absent father. When her mother died, her father’s absence put her and her younger brother in the orphanage for a year, before he sent for his son. But Cleo disguised herself as a boy and went with her brother to her father, who was not best pleased to be saddled with a girl in his global nomadic exploration of antiquities—real and fake—to sell to the highest bidders. His indifference towards his children makes for an unusual upbringing and accounts for much of Cleo’s mistrustful personality. She never knows when someone will betray her and seeks to be on guard at all times.

Cleo and Rafe meet when Cleo propositions Rafe—offering to pay him with an emerald—for his offices in getting her from Syene to Cairo. My review is here.

Here To Stay by Adriana Herrera
Category: Contemporary Romance
Comments: With this book, Herrera brings a fresh and fun look at workplace romance with an enemies-to-lovers theme. And as with all her books, what seems light on the surface has deep and serious undercurrents, such as verbal abuse and the deportation of immigrants. Herrera continues to wow me with her stories of complex fully-formed characters, found family, Latinx family relationships, starting over in new places, and success and happiness despite the odds.

Dominican American Julia del Mar Ortiz leaves behind her familia to follow her boyfriend from NYC to Dallas to her dream job of running a charitable foundation for a big department store. Unfortunately, her feckless boyfriend ends up ditching her to hightail it out of Dallas, leaving her behind with an expensive apartment and car to pay for and to fend off loneliness.

Herrera’s skill is in writing characters who are passionate about and dedicated to the work they do. Julia cares deeply about the people she helps through her work for the Foundation. Her commitment and no-nonsense attitude stand her in good stead when dealing with her work duties as well as working with her colleagues.

But her fiery personality makes for spectacular clashes with fellow New Yorker, Rocco Quinn. Rocco is the talented consultant hired by the Foundation’s CEO to move the store into public ownership. This could result in Julia’s job being eliminated. Her and Rocco’s conflict arises between their opposing desires for the head of the Foundation because of the impact that position would have on their respective lives—each stands to lose something important to them. My review is here.

Last Tang Standing by Lauren Ho
Category: Contemporary Romance
Comments: This is Malaysian author Lauren Ho’s debut book and is set in Singapore. I really liked this book for its deeper examination of Singaporean society and what it demands of its young. Using humor, the author makes the painful, palatable. An assured debut.

Chinese-Malayasian-Singaporean Andrea Tang is in her early thirties and laser-focused on her career in a successful law firm. She is a senior associate aiming to make law partner before too long. Her chic condo and chic friends and their high-living life have been enough for her so far. And yet, she dreads the upcoming Chinese New Year celebration that always brings out nosy relatives, who opine on her unmarried and child-free life and bring her deeply hidden insecurities about her future to the surface. She knows she is supposed to want a husband and children, that a woman isn’t considered complete without being married, that her social capital is at a low ebb as a single woman&8212;these are the challenges of Singaporean society.

So when her mother with over passive-aggressive tendencies finds out that Andrea is being courted by wealthy entrepreneur Eric Deng and she is over the moon, Andrea takes comfort that she is finally being the dutiful daughter and taking an interest in life beyond work. She parrots out loud how rich, handsome and successful Eric is and thus perfect for any woman, especially her, and she would be crazy to refuse to marry him.

And yet...there is Indian-Singaporean Suresh Aditparan. On one hand, he is supremely irritating and with whom she is vying to make partner; on the other hand, she can’t stop thinking about him. She is completely conflicted. On one hand, Eric is the politic choice, which will please her family and hush up her critics, on the hand, there is Suresh’s seductive charm. My review is here.

A Lady Awakened by Cecilia Grant
Category: Historical Romance
Comments: This is an ongoing read for our Sunday Twitter Book Club with Mary Lynne, Kay, Ros, and Willa. We are reading three chapters every week. The discussions for this book have been robust, and not everyone is in agreement at all times, which makes for interesting conversation. This book is about the protagonists' growth arcs, particularly, the heroine's. The others have read this book before, but this was my first read. I feel that for the others, their overall impression of her is coloring how they view her in the beginning chapters. Since I was coming at the book with fresh eyes, I found her character difficult to read or understand, much less empathize. But now that we're beyond chapter 10, I am beginning to see glimmers of her promise. The hero I have found reasonable and logical and sympathetic right from the start. But in order for the story to work, you have to understand the heroine, and it takes effort to stay the course till chapters 9 or 10. I can well see why this was a polarizing book—some people really liked it and others didn't. It's certainly not an easy book, and I wonder if I would've continued on with it if I hadn't been reading it for the book club and knew that the other members of the club had read it and enjoyed it.

Mad, Bad, and Dangerous to Know by Samira Ahmed
Category: Contemporary YA Fiction
Comments: This is a dual-timeline, YA romantic suspense that didn't quite take off. The premise is very interesting. The author Alexandre Dumas was friends with the painter Eugène Delacroix in early 19th century. Alexandre, a known womanizer, was fascinated with a woman with long black hair. This is Leila, whose name Dumas doesn't mention. What is also little known is that Dumas was biracial with a white French grandfather and a black slave grandmother and was discriminated in his life because of it.

Our modern-day teen, Khayyam (yes, of that famous poet's name) is an American, French, Indian, and Muslim teen. She has a Caucasian French father and an Indian Muslim mother, both professors at a well-known university in the US. Of her heritage Khayyam writes (and I loved): "I'm not a passport that everyone gts to stamp with a label of their choosing. People look at me and try to shove me into their own narrative to define who and what I am. But I'm nto a blank page that everyone else gets to write on. I have my own voice. I have my own story. I have my own name. It's Khayyam."

Her dream is to study art history at the college adjoining the Art Institute of Chicago, which requires that she write an original research essay. She submits one on the possibility that Delacroix secretely gave Dumas one his famous paintings. The judge returns the essay with a scathing opinion. Khayyam embarks on her annual family trip to Paris in a glum mood but determined to redeem herself. Lo and behold, one of the first people she meets is the great-great-many greats-grandson of Alexandre Dumas who has a character sketch by Delacroix in his parents' apartment.

Very promising start to the story, no? But it is the writing and Khayyam's lovelorn characterization that sinks the story. It isn't that teens aren't lovelorn. But YA authors, such as Sandhya Menon, write such characters with a light hand, sprinkling lots of humor with some emo. Khayyam has only one setting to her: gasping over the new Parisian boy with a lot of silliness and self-deprecation minus the humor. This is all a huge pity. I really wanted to like the book, because the mystery is well done.

A note: I enjoyed the loving relationship between Khayyam's parents. Bright intelligent people who enjoy each other intellectually and romantically and who love their child unconditionally and provide her with the support, challenge, and independence she needs. This is what marriage is about. I wanted to read their story.

Eloquent Rage: A Black Feminist Discovers Her Superpower by Brittney Cooper
Category: Nonfiction
Comments: I took a writing webinar on the beauty of rage in the personal essay this month led by a brilliant professor of journalism and fantastic essayist. This book is a good example of the beauty of rage and its effectiveness. Far too often, Black women have been deemed as angry women and dismissed as irrational. However, we have seen the rise of eloquent women expressing rage in public spaces with great effectiveness: Serena Williams, Beyoncé, Michelle Obama, Toni Morrison, Aretha Franklin, Audre Lorde, and so many others. Drawing on Lorde's experiences, Cooper has in turn explored rage in the context of Black females starting from when they're little girls. In many ways, this was a hard book to read, because the emotions are right on the surface, so much so, that a careless glance could dismiss it as a chip on the shoulder. But if you stay with the text and really listen to what she is saying, she is showing us how expressive rage can be and how empowering.

Monday, August 3, 2020

My July Reading

Finally... Finally!!... Summer has arrived in the Pacific Northwest, and what a gorgeous summer it is. Day time temperature hovers between 75 and 80 F with 30 to 50 percent humidity. Blue skies. Bright sunshine. This is bliss to those of us who love the sun but are stuck in rainy, dark, cold PNW for ten months of the year. I have been spending time in the hammock in the back yard, reading, and time in a lawn chair in the front yard, working. Now, if only, I weren't allergic to the PNW grasses and mold and moss that seems to be permanently mixed in, I would be able to lie down in the cool grass like this young miss here in the picture.

The Ruin of Evangeline Jones by Julia Bennet
Category: Historical Romance
Comments: Bennet’s The Madness of Miss Grey was on my Best Books of 2019 list, and so I was eagerly awaiting this book. The Ruin of Evangeline Jones is superb.

Evangeline “Evie” Jones was a much sought-after medium in London. Séances always exhaust her but that is the only thing she has been trained to do in her life. She owes everything to "Captain" who had rescued her as a young child from a brothel. And he demands complete obedience and obeisance from her. His every whim is her command, and she is in thrall to him.

Alex, the Duke of Harcastle has made it his mission to flush out charlatans who separate clients from their money through fraudulent séances. He does not believe in spirits or spiritualists. Other than his zeal for this, he considers himself an aloof man. He has no intimates outside his family, partly because he is reserved and partly because his rank is so daunting. Alex has a secret. He has a naughty photograph of Evie that he accidentally found in one of the print shops of London. The photograph so fascinates and arouses him that he carries it around in his pocket like a talisman and communes with it in his leisure times. Evie and Alex meet at one of her séances. My review is here.

Mr. Malcolm's List by Suzanne Allain
Category: Regency Romance
Comments: The Honorable Jeremy Malcolm, second son of the Earl of Kilbourne, is handsome and wealthy and the greatest catch of the Season. But he is determined to not be caught. He has a list of requirements in the lady on whom he will confer the honor of being his wife: amiable & even-tempered; handsome of countenance & figure; candid, truthful & guileless; converses in a sensible fashion; educated herself by extensive reading; a forgiving nature; charitable & altruistic; graceful & well-mannered; posses musical or artistic talent; has genteel relations from good society.

Dear Readers, you can see where this is going. The Honorable Jeremy Malcolm is set to have his backside handed to him.

Full of good humor and period details, this book is a thoroughly enjoyable story of how a smart, bright young woman brings this arrogant, pompous darling of the ton to his proverbial knees, and in so doing, confers upon him the honor of becoming her husband. My review is here.

Her Best Friend, the Duke by Laura Martin
Category: Historical Romance
Comments: Imagine if a duke and a lady could be platonic friends in the Regency, and it would be accepted by the ton with no scandalous rumors attached to them? Just imagine!

James, the Duke of Heydon, is on the wrong side of forty and adores traveling. He is gone a few months of the year exploring to his heart’s content. The other times, he is dedicated to his estates and fulfilling other ducal duties. He has been waiting patiently (and impatiently) for The One to appear in his life. In the meantime, he has perfected the art of depressing the hopes of marriage-minded mamas and their simpering daughters. The only lady’s company he freely enjoys is Caroline’s.

Caroline Yaxley (“Cara” to James) secretly hankers to travel. And Caroline even more secretly hankers after James. She has been in love with him since the beginning of their five-year friendship. But he has never had more than a warm strictly platonic regard for her. He is a reserved man, aloof even with his male friends, and it is only with Caroline that he lets down his guard and shares his thoughts and ideas. Caroline values his friendship so much — at least in this way she has him in her life — that she is afraid to even hint at her feelings and run the risk of having him dropping her like a hot potato. My review is here.

The Trouble with Hating You by Sajni Patel
Category: Contemporary Romance
Comments: Content Warning: There is discussion of assault in the book and in my review.

In this book, Patel brilliantly shows how young Indian Americans blend the Indian ethics and morals their parents brought with them from India—and tried to inculcate in their progeny—and the American principles they grew up with among their peers. Ultimately, the book is an exploration of deeply-held values, how our past shapes us, and how we can intentionally step forward into life.

Liya Thakkar is a Gujarati Indian American biochemistry scientist in Houston. All her life, she’s been known as a rebel among her parents’ generation, a strong person among her friends, and a person with integrity among her colleagues. She was not generally considered a likeable person, and she has convinced herself of that fact, and she has further developed a hard shell to shrug off any attempts by others to like her. She certainly has no intention of marrying.

So when she finds herself being surprised by her desperate parents with an introduction to a prospective groom, she runs screaming into the night…smack into the gorgeous person of Jayesh “Jay” Shah, a Gujarati Indian American lawyer in Houston. Jay is naturally appalled at Liya’s manners and that she hurt his mother’s feelings and her parents’. Unlike Liya’s rebelliousness and prickly relationship with her parents, mostly her father, Jay has a close relationship with his mother, brother, and sister-in-law. Liya has an unruly tongue on her, but Jay is the dutiful son and has always the rights words and gestures for every occasion and every person. My review is here.

A Duke, The Lady, and a Baby by Vanessa Riley
Category: Historical Romance
Comments: In conjunction with release of this book, I wrote up a list of diverse historical romances I have read and loved: #OwnVoices historical romances, stories by marginalized authors, and historicals with diverse characters.

This book is an excellent start to Riley’s Rogues and Remarkable Women series. I have found Riley to be a consistently good writer with strong heroes and heroines and their remarkable stories with complex bits of history that I never knew about. I loved her previous Advertisements for Love series, and I am eagerly looking forward to seeing how this new series progresses.

Patience Jordan is an Afro-Caribbean heiress from the West Indies. When her English husband dies mysteriously, Patience tries to make enquires about the cause of his death, and before she knows it, her son has been kidnapped and she has been stripped of her home and fortune and clapped into Bedlam. She is at her wit’s end with sorrow and worry over her infant son. All she wants to do is rescue him and return to the West Indies.

The Widow’s Grace is a secret society that helps widows down on their luck return to their former status, find their families, and perhaps even find true love. The society helps Patience to hire on as her son’s nurse in the ducal household of his guardian, all unbeknownst to him. Busick Strathmore, the Duke of Repington, is used to commanding people and their respect, as a duke and in combat. He wears the mantle of power and influence lightly but comfortably. So he is perplexed to be at daggers drawn with his ward’s nurse. My review is here.

So Forward by Mina V. Esguerra
Category: Contemporary Romance
Comments: Young poet Gaby Comprés has written: "stories, we all are stories, we are books longing for someone to look beyond our covers and turn our pages and read the ink tattooed on them. we long to be seen, we want to be read and understood and loved. we are hoping to become poetry to those hearts that see us, something beautiful and unforgettable." This is what I thought of as I read this book.

All her life, Alexandra "Lexa" Lorenzo has been told that she is tough, difficult, unfriendly—she is never the sweet one, the cute one, the nice one. She knows that people believe she is scary and aloof. While she is ambivalent about wanting to change this commonly-held perspective of her, she does want the top job at Basco Lorenzo, and Filipino companies need to see their managers being friendly and enjoying themselves at parties before they can be liked and trusted. Esguerra has done a good job of showing how this belief in her toughness, has allowed Lexa to succeed on the rink as a Philippine national women’s team ice hockey player, but it has done a number on her mind. She believes she is unlovable.

Colin Valerio is the darling of the rink as a nationally renowned figure skater of the Philippines, who has a fetish for posting, wildly popular, shirtless photos of himself on Instagram. Now that his skating days are over, he makes money with an on-off modeling career and a marketing job for an underwear brand, which subsidizes his MBA at AGS.Colin thinks people look at him and assume he is empty-headed and not going to amount to much. Esguerra does a wonderful job of showing Colin’s vulnerability. My review is here.

A Sweet Mess by Jayci Lee
Category: Contemporary Romance
Comments: In this book, Jayci Lee brings together two Korean-American protagonists who have combustible chemistry with each other that eventually deepens into an abiding love. Lee’s skill as a writer is bringing her characters fully formed to life right from the beginning.

Aubrey Choi is a talented baker who puts her heart and soul into her work, even caring for her youngest clients’ birthday cakes. Her small Comfort Zone bakery is set in Weldon in the foothills of the Sierra Nevada. Aubrey has built up her life away from her strictly traditional Korean parents, especially her father. She asserted her independence early on and is working hard to not only make ends meet but also to keep her dream bakery alive. It is not easy being a business owner in a small town, and it is especially difficult when you are one of only six Asian Americans. However, Lee has a light hand with the story. This book is of two people finding love and their romantic struggles, not of socio-cultural struggles marginalized Americans face.

Landon Kim is a celebrity food critic, who travels all over the world leading a nomadic life. He is known in the industry to never walk back a review, whether good or bad. His word is his word, and his reputation rests on it. He also retains his professional integrity by never mixing the personal with the professional; in other words, he does not want to be party to a scandal accusing him of allowing a restaurateur to sleep with him for a positive review.

And in this story, the personal collides with the professional. My review is here.

A Christmas Gone Perfectly Wrong by Cecilia Grant
Category: Historical Romance Novella
Comments: This was my first Cecilia Grant book, and I was wowed. Her writing is delicate, subtle, and nuanced, and you get the feeling that the words are carefully chosen and placed. I am absolutely in love with her writing

The hero and heroine are virgins. She is a free spirit, he is an uptight prig. He is powerfully attracted to her right from the beginning; she is slow to warm. He is unbending in his duty and rules of propriety; she cares not a fig for propriety. Over the course of just a handful of days, he starts to let his guard down and to see that it is okay for him to not be so perfectionistic and not do everything just right. And in so doing, he starts to notice that what he had initially found annoying is actually are good traits to have. Likewise, she realizes that not everything should be winged; she learns to slow down and think before impulsively acting. They both also learn to accept in the other what they may not like and to admire the other for what they do well. And thus they each change and shift to fit together.

I read this as part of a Twitter book club. We read this book over three Sundays in July. In August and September, we plan on reading Lady Awakened by Cecilia Grant, over six weeks, three chapters a week. Do join in on Sundays at 2pm ET with hashtag #LadyAwake.

Stamped: Racism, Antiracism, and You by Jason Reynolds, Ibram X. Kendi
Category: Nonfiction
Comments: A brilliant book pitched at young middle schoolers, it is the YA version of Dr. Kendi's adult book Stamped. Reynolds does a good job of breaking Kendi's complex research and writing, down to salient points that harness what the kids already know to explain what they don't know. History is told by the victors, and so there is all this Black history that has been erased. This book talks about all the notable Black people in history who effected structural change, that does not include the known greats, but the lesser known lights who were even more influential.The book also turns commonly-told white history on its head. Most kids' history books wax poetic on Thomas Jefferson, but how many kids know that he spoke out of both sides of his mouth: equality and slaveholder?

One of the interesting ideas of this book is how people in history have been segregationists, assimilationists, or antiracists. This exists to this day. People either fall in one bucket or the other, or some straddle buckets depending on the situation. Some people progress through different buckets at different points in their life. Obama is an ineresting example. Black people had hoped he would be antiracist; turns out he was more assimilationist when he was in office. I attended a panel which had Dr. Cornel West on it, and he talked about how he was a huge Obama fan and worked really hard on his first campaign but became disillusioned about him and increasingly critical as time went to on.

I read this book as part of a Zoom book club, and we met for five Thursdays this month to discuss different sections of the book. We read this book deliberately as part of the antiracicsm work we are doing. In June, we read So You Want To Think About Race by Ijeoma Oluo. In August and September, we are going to read, Eloquent Rage: A Black Feminist Discovers Her Superpower by Brittney Cooper. In October and November, we will be reading How to Be an Antiracist by Ibram X. Kendi.

Friday, July 3, 2020

My June Reading

Listening to Hamilton as I write this piece. I read mostly romance this month as I caught up on my review books and other books on my Kindle. I have a weakness for Jane Austen books, and I read a great one this month.

The Jane Austen Society by Natalie Jenner
Category: Historical Fiction
Comments: When I heard that The Jane Austen Society was billed as a book for fans of The Chilbury Ladies’ Choir and The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society, I knew this was a book for me. As it turns out, The Jane Austen Society is the best historical romantic fiction book I have read this year so far. Jenner writes the story of her memorable characters with deep sensitivity, great imagination, and wonderful prose.

Set mainly in the 1940s, the book is about individuals from the small insular English town of Alton, who, along with a few people around the world, are brought together by their love of Jane Austen’s work. Together, they form a society for the preservation of all things Austen, including her cherished former home in the village of Chawton near Alton in Hampshire. And in so preserving Austen’s legacy, they find hope, love and solace in their own lives, which have been overlooked by society and undervalued by themselves.

Living in the shadow of Austen’s home, these people love her books—identify with her characters more than their neighbors sometimes—and regularly quote from them. One of the joys of this book is the perceptive analysis of Austen’s novels as the characters freely discuss them while conversing with each other. Some of the subplots and scenes even have Austenesque stories embedded in them. The delight in reading this book was their discovery. And yet, The Jane Austen Society is not a derivative book by any means. It stands alone on its merits as an engrossing story well told. My review is here.

The Happy Ever After Playlist by Abby Jimenez
Category: Contemporary Romance
Comments: This is a book that truly makes you believe that a romance is possible for everyone even if you were previously a non-believer. The book begins with sorrow. As an author, it takes guts to start a romance novel with a grieving main character. Jimenez does an absolutely wonderful job showing how grief upon the death of a beloved takes you. How you sleepwalk through your days, how caring about anything is an overwhelming effort, and how coming out of it seems insurmountable and doesn’t seem to be worth it. From this nadir of her life, the heroine rises like a phoenix to lead a rich life filled with laughter and romance.

The meet cute is not between the heroine and the hero, but between her and his dog. They meet over the airwaves between California and Australia when she tries to find the dog's owner. Initially, she’s like finders-keepers because she feels he’s a careless owner, but then they both realize how much they both love the dog, so they decide to be kind and adult and share him. I was sold on these two people right then and there for their maturity and thoughtfulness.

A lot of their initial romance is through their phone conversations. This was the other aspect of the story I liked so much. Since appearances were initially out of the picture, they “like” each other first before “lusting” after each other. I am not a fan of insta-lust, and I need to see friendship and liking first before I can believe in the promise of their HEA. The strongest part of the book for me was not the falling in love aspect of the characters but how they work to fit their lives together. My review is here.

The Boyfriend Project by Farrah Rochon
Category: Contemporary Romance
Comments: The Boyfriend Project was a fun book from beginning to end with some serious exploration underlying it. Farrah Rochon is a new author for me, and now I can’t wait to read the next book in this new contemporary series. In this book, Rochon explores the struggles of Black women in the workplace, particularly in the tech industry, with sensitivity and empathy, and it was the strongest aspect of the novel for me. Being a woman in tech is never easy, but being a double minority, and a Black woman at that, takes an act of courage every single day.

She is a brilliant software engineer who is a go-getter and loves her work. She thinks she’s in an interesting relationship, when she discovers, to her horror, that her boyfriend is cheating on her with two other women, each of whom thinks he’s exclusive to her. From this atrocious beginning comes a close friendship as the three women come together to for their Boyfriend Project: a pact to spend the next six months investing in themselves. What this means that there will be no men and no dating allowed. Samiah uses their pact of working on something that makes them happy as the impetus to finally finish developing the app she’s always dreamed of creating.

Into this determination, steps Daniel Collins, a biracial man (Korean-American and African-American), who investigates financial crimes. On the surface, he is a tech worker just like Samiah. But unknown to her, he’s actually working undercover for the federal government, and it is not something he can divulge to anyone, not even her. As their relationship goes from fun to flirty, he is torn about his secret. My review is here.

Real Men Knit by Kwana Jackson
Category: Contemporary Romance
Comments: This story revolves around Strong Knits, a Harlem neighborhood knitting shop, run by the Strong matriarch, Mama Joy. Jesse Strong is the youngest of Mama Joy’s four foster-adoptive sons. He is someone who has always been popular with the ladies — he loves them and they love him. Kerry Fuller is a part-time employee in the shop and has known Jesse’s mother and his brothers for a while now. Unbeknownst to Jesse, she is madly in love with him, but unrequited love seems to be her future, because Jesse has never paid her any notice.

Then, unfortunately, Mama Joy passes away. Plunged into grief, Jesse has to nevertheless figure out what to do with the shop. His brothers are all for selling it and washing their hands off it. But Jesse wants to keep Mama Joy’s legacy going because the store has evolved into a bit of a community center in the neighborhood—I really enjoyed the small town feel of this story.

The shop is the making of both the protagonists. The hero starts out as under his brothers’ shadow, but gains confidence in himself as the shop takes off. At the start, she is quiet and self-effacing. She likes being useful and is always there helping everybody around her. As their relationship progresses, she gains more confidence in herself as someone who can achieve things, and also as someone who can attract a man who lives life at large. My review is here.

The Marriage Game by Sara Desai
Category: Contemporary Romance
Comments: Layla Patel has returned home to her parents after disaster overtakes her career in New York. She plans to ground herself in her childhood home, above their Michelin-starred restaurant, and launch her own recruiting agency. But all is not well at home and the coveted peace, she had hoped for, is nowhere to be found. Her father has a heart attack, and she discovers that the restaurant is in financial difficulty. And to compound the difficulty, the supposed rent-free office her father gave her already has an occupant with whom she is supposed to share. Sam Mehta is the CEO of a corporate downsizing company, and he, too, is not happy to share an office.

The juxtaposition of Layla’s involved family and Sam’s totally uninvolved one is very well handled. Layla’s dad is a hoot. His well-intentioned but totally interfering and dominating methods to secure a husband for Layla were over-the-top and perfect for the story: He sets up a secret online dating profile for her and then scans hundreds of profiles and curates a list of ten men for her of whom he approves. He even sets up dates with them. The only thing he doesn’t do is go on the dates with Layla. (Sam does instead—to great comedic effect.) My review is here.

Marriage by Arrangement by Sophia Singh Sasson
Category: Contemporary Romance
Comments: This is the first book in Sasson’s Nights at the Mahal series, and I just fell in love with her world.

The heroine has been languishing as a junior architect at RKS Architecture in Las Vegas. She has been dangling on the promise of a promotion for two years. And she finally has a shot at it with her design ideas for a new hotel by a rising hotel group based in India. The hero is heir to a dynasty of hoteliers whose headquarters are in Rajasthan. He is also known as India’s hottest hottie with all its attendant adulation from the female half of the population. While his family is content to conquer the hoteling market in India, Arjun has his eye on a global empire. He has set his sights on Vegas as the first venture.

The last quarter of the book was the strongest section for me. It is easy to fall in love, but it is difficult to make a marriage. It is difficult to fit two lives together and set that within two families. The heart of this book is Rani and Arjun figuring out what they want to take a stance on, what they are willing to compromise, who will give what to whom, and who will decide what they cannot give up. What I also really liked about this book is that Sasson shows how they consider both of their families at large. Sasson has skillfully used their exploration of what their parents and traditions mean to them to build character. They are who they are because of their families and culture. And so, marriage between them has to involve their families—in other words, everyone has to agree that this is a good match. My review is here.

Scandal at the Christmas Ball: Dancing with the Duke's Heir by Bronwyn Scott
Category: Regency Romance
Comments: This is the second novella in the Scandal at the Christmas Ball anthology. The first story was by Marguerite Kaye that I read a couple of years ago. If you love Christmas and truly love the Regency era, this is the story for you. Scott pulls out all stops in lovingly detailing Christmas decorations and traditions, the grand house interior and exterior, clothes and food. It is a feast to those of us who love traditional Regencies. The duke and duchess of Brockmore invite a bunch of the upper class young people every year for the twelve days of Christmas and shamelessly, and successfully, match-make. They even mediate in romantic troubles, patiently sheperding various couples together.

The hero is the extremely reluctant heir to Brockmore, and after four years, still in mourning for the heirs before him: his father and older brother. He is a prominent anthropologist and his speciality is the Sami people of Lapland. She is the outrageous daughter of an earl who is determined to make herself unmarriageable so she can be free to travel the world. They both love to travel, but little do they know that they have this in common when they first meet. He thinks she's an attention-seeking trollope and she thinks he's a self-righteous prig. Clearly, they could have nothing in common. From this premise comes a lovely story of how they are the only ones who truly understand each other. She's calmer and more thoughtful when she's with him; he's more alive in her presence than he has ever been. Their coming together is a story of great tenderness and hot passion, but mostly the slow and careful uncovering of each other's qualities. Lovely.

Don't miss reading Marguerite Kaye and Bronwyn Kaye's joint Author's Note.

This Earl of Mine by Kate Bateman
Category: Regency Romance
Comments: This is the first book in Bateman's Bow Street Bachelors series and requires some suspension of disbelief. The heroine learned about her family's shipping business from her father and is now in charge of it. She is in a quandary: Her cousin wants to trap her in marriage to wrest control of the business, but in order to escape him if she marries someone else, she will still lose her business. So she embarks on a plot to marry a convicted felon who is in line to get his neck stretched real soon. As his widow, she will be independent. (Why she assumes that her unscrupulous cousin won't force her again to marry is left unexplored.) Unfortunately for our heroine, her felon dies before she can marry him. So she sets her sights on a sailor due for transportation to ends of the earth. This is an even better solution, because now her cousin cannot force her to marry him, and with this husband out of the way, the business is safe in her hands. (Like I said, the plot is a tad implausible.)

The implausibility is further stretched by the hero's back story. He is a of the aristocratic class who is an agent of the government who is working on exposing a group of smugglers who want to liberate Napoléon from St. Helena. Unfortunately for him, he is arrested and imprisoned with the smugglers and is set for transportation. He cannot claim his upper class rank because that would blow his cover. So he is in prison, waiting to discover more of the plot. He thinks the woman approaching him with money to marry him is cuckoo but he is game. This is a marriage-of-convenience plot.

There were a couple of reasons this book refused to take off for me. I like when characters are shown—not just told—to be competent at their work and then also shown to be engaged in that work. We are told that the heroine is good at running the shipping business, but other than a cursory telling of the things she does, we are not shown details. The hero's motivation for getting married is questionable. The other thing I found unpalatable is not really fair because it exists in a lot of the historical romance oeuvre: He is a rake who is not a rake. I really like rakes to be, well, rakish on the page, not in the past—I like to see redemption. Despite the good banter and flashes of humor and a reasonable MOC plot, the book ultimately didn't work for me.

To Catch an Earl by Kate Bateman
Category: Regency Romance
Comments: This is the second book in Bateman's Bow Street Bachelors series. Bateman does banter reasonably well in the beginning but that falls away when the characters get caught up in the story. I hoped it would be a theme underlying all the seriousness. The premise is that she is a clever jewel thief, called Nightjar, who steals from wealthy wives of visiting diplomats leaving behind a black feather so they know she had been there. Emma is known for her mastery of disguise, given how many people she has fooled so far. Inexplicably, she wears a unique perfume every time she goes jewel hunting.

He is the Bow Street runner who is in hot pursuit. In reality, he is Alexander Harland, the Earl of Melton, and she is Emmy Danvers, also known as Emmeline Louise d’Anvers, the daughter of France’s most sought after jewel thief. There is much attraction between the two leaving the hero conflicted. There's intrigue in the story about Bonaparte and Napoleon and how someone is hunting her, but the plot overall is lackluster, and despite its promising beginning, the characters then fall into predictable lines.

Monday, June 22, 2020

Updated Recommended Books and Links

I have updated the Recommended Links section of the sidebar by removing broken links and adding a few new ones. I have updated the Recommended Books section of the sidebar by adding many more books to the romance, other fiction, and nonfiction lists and adding poetry and children's picture book lists. I will be slowly addings books to the picture books list since I have so many to recommend there.

Sunday, June 14, 2020

My May Reading

I really like this quote by Anna Quindlen: "We read in bed because reading is halfway between life and dreaming, our own consciounsness in someone else's mind." Most of my reading is done in the evening in bed. This summer, I hope to get more reading done than I have in the past two months, and that means, reading more in a chair, because even I cannot lie in bed during the day. With my daughter's health in such constant turmoil, the pandemic, homeschooling, and now, protesting, I have only done comfort reading. For the second month in a row, all I read were traditional Regencies.

This post is so delayed, almost mid-June, instead of the start of the month like usual, but I have been in a brain fog. I seem to be recovering my spirits. I polished off four reviews for Frolic Media and am now writing up these reviews. First up is a poetry collection, then a nonfic book and a children's picture book, and then the romance books.

Country Without a Post Office by Agha Shahid Ali
Category: Poetry Collection
Comments: The world looks the other way while Kashmir burns. India and Pakistan have fought over this gorgeous Himalayan state since partition and independence in 1947. They routinely send their soldiers to alternately rile up the Kashmiris and subjugate them. The beauty of this region has been bathed in blood and fire for years, and has been forever ruined. We, Americans, are protesting a few weeks of lockdown? Imagine years of deprivation. Agha Shahid Ali was the son of a prominent highly-educated family from Kashmir. He was an American poet who wrote wrenching verses about the desecration of his homeland. Here are excerpts from a couple of his poems from this collection.

"The Country Without a Post Office"
Again I've returned to this country
where a minaret has been entombed.
Someone soaks the wicks of clay lamps
in mustard oil, each night climbs its steps
to read messages scratched on planets.
His fingerprints cancel blank stamps
in that archive for letters with doomed
addresses, each house buried or empty.

"I See Kashmir from New Delhi at Midnight"
"Don't tell my father I have died," he says
and I follow him through blood on the road
and hundreds of pairs of shoes the mourners
left behind, as they ran from the funeral,
victims of the firing. From windows we hear
grieving mothers, and snow begins to fall
on us, like ash. Black on edges of flames,
it cannot extinguish the neighborhoods,
the homes set ablaze by midnight soldiers.

Becoming by Michelle Obama
Category: Audio Nonfic
Comments: I read the book two years ago right when it came out. Then this spring, my daughter and I decided to listen to the audio. And it was an amazing experience. Listening to her book in her own voice felt like she was sitting at the kitchen table with you telling you her story. She has such a calm, measured tone as she tells, what to her, is a story of ordinary people on an extraordinary journey. But as I listened, I felt I was in the presence of an extraordinary person (actually, people, because she tells Obama's story as well) who is leading an extraordinary life with extraordinary grace in the teeth of acute racism and unmitigated hate. I have always admired her, but now, my admiration knows no bounds. How can two people be so amazing?! If you get a chance, do listen to her tell her story.

Stormy by Guojing
Category: Children's Picture Book
Comments: This is a heartwarming wordless book about friendship, compassion, and belonging by illustrator Guojing. A little pup is lost outdoors. He lives wild and scrounges around for food. One day, he sees a woman approaching a bench near him and runs away. From afar he observes her as she observes him. The next day, she shows up again but with a ball for him, but he is scared of this stranger. He only plays with the ball after she has left and allows it to comfort him in the night. After many days, her patience is rewarded when he comes close enough to her to play with her. He has deemed her safe. Not everyone can trust right away when offered a treat. Trust takes time to build. My review is here. (You'll have to scroll the post a bit to find the review for this book.)

Lady with a Black Umbrella by Mary Balogh
Category: Traditional Regency
Comments: I gave this an 'A+' when I read this last year, and I still agree with the grade upon a re-read. It reminds me of The Hampshire Hoyden by Michelle Martin in how funny it is. Neither books descend to a farce. They are carefully calibrated to be witty while also having serious elements. Whereas Umbrella is more tightly woven around the couple, Hoyden has a secondary plot.

The heroine is a redoubtable lady in her mid-twenties, convinced that she is on the shelf and thus suitable of being a chaperone to her younger, beautiful sister. She has rather managing ways, which have stood her in good stead, since she's been managing her father's estate and the house for years given the irresponsible parents she's had. She is also a do-gooder who sometimes doesn't realize the consequences of her actions, nor is she aware of others' opnion of her. She allows no one to gainsay her as she hies off to London to her aunt's house without informing her—just the two young ladies without even a maid or a companion to lend them countenance.

The hero is a viscount of exacting ways who is very conscious of his own consequence and the dignity of his rank and likes things just-so. At an inn on the road to Bath, his purse is stolen and he is in the process of being beaten up badly by the innkeeper's goons, when into the fracas descends our intrepid heroine in a white nightgown, shoeless, hair unbraided, and armed with a gentleman's umbrella, with which she proceeds to route the unsavory fellows beating up the hero. The hero is mortified to be saved by a woman and makes his escape by promising the innkeeper that he will send money to cover his cost.

Having rescued him, she is determined to help more and pays his shot, his gambling debt, and the barmaid, his bedmate for the night. You can imagine how he feels when he—and all of society—finds out! The young women arrive in London to find their aunt out of the country and having to rely on the outraged hero's non-existent kindness.

It is not only her age and lack of looks (so she thinks) are what have convinced her that she is unmarriageable. It is that she is a very managing person, and she should rule any man she married and promptly despise him. The heart of this story is how the hero, who has firm boundaries and knows when to exert them and when to give in, unknowingly establishes himself as a person of ntoe

The Last Waltz by Mary Balogh
Category: Traditional Regency
Comments: This is a very quiet book of two people who were very much in love in their young days and are now finding a second chance at love in the midst of a house party. She was in her first season and he, not much older than her, discovered that they were so attuned to each other as to be unable to think of anyone else when they were together and even when they were apart. And yet, overnight, she changes her alliance from an agreement to marry him to getting engaged to his cousin. He is utterly devastated and precipitously departs to the wilds of Canada to escape the pain.

Now, he is back, because his cousin is dead and he is the earl with its attendant duties to look after. He hates her so much and it shows. And it wounds her again and again as much as she knows she deserves it. Her life with his cousin had been one of horror. She is parched for kindness but cannot leave off years of learned strictures.

He perceives the emotional porousness that kindness requires as a dangerous crack in the armor of his independent self. And yet, he shows such kindness to her and her girls leaving himself vulnerable to her barbs and cold-shouldering. He is kind inspite of his long-held hatred of her as the cause of his unhappiness and despair. But the old love has not died, merely buried under layers of bitterness. It only takes her presence to peal off that scab to reveal the love that had lain fallow all this time.

As the dowager countess, she and he live in the same house along with two female relatives. So while this is not a typical marriage-of-convenience, there is forced proximity that gives rise to changing emotions and a resurgence of desire. The heart of the story is the unraveling of his feelings of her betrayal, the reasons for her then change-of-heart, her marriage with her former husband, and their growing trust in each other. The latter is so wonderful to see—Balogh explores this beautifully time and time again in her books.

The Ungrateful Governess by Mary Balogh
Category: Traditional Regency
Comments: I didn't quite know what to make of this story. The story is unusual enough, but it was the reactions of the protagonists, particularly the heroine, that had me going back and forth about what I felt about the book, right to the end. That is what made the book interesting. My conclusion was that right towards the end, I got a bit fed up with the heroine. Until then, I had felt she had a point and was making it well.

She is beautiful. Naturally. But she is working as a governess suitably clad in gray and being self-effacing. He is a rake, and so, of course, notices the diamond in the rough, and finding her in the library one night in her nightgown and hair down—this is a contrivance that always elicits an eye-roll from me—propositions her for the night. He is soundly refused, but they are caught being alone. Since she is a servant, he gets away scot-free, but she is summarily dismissed without a character. I didn't know what to make of this. It sounds like Balogh being true to unpalatable historical more.

When he finds out, he is wracked with guilt and gives her carte blance as his mistress. She agrees and they're at almost all in (har! har!), when she say 'no.' He immediately stops—Balogh does respect and consent so well—and asks her to apply to his grandmother for help in finding a new position. His grandmother (of course!) recognizes that she is the spitting image of her grandfather, a marquess, and so decides to bring her into fashion. The heroine had a battle of wills with her grandfather and so instead of applying to him for help when she is orphaned but unmarried, she instead chooses to become a governess. You just have to accept this eye-rolling life choice.

Pride! She is suffused with it, and you have to accept this as part of her character. This makes her decision towards the end of the book more logical, but had me impatient with her. The story is all about how he proposes to her multiple times and how she leads him into more and more introspection of his feelings, moving him from a superficial rake to a man of maturity. This is what I liked best about the story. What I liked least is how much self-reflection she makes him do without doing it much herself.

Reforming Lord Ragsdale by Carla Kelly
Category: Traditional Regency
Comments: This, to me, is one of Kelly's best books, if not, the best. He is a true profligate, truly reprehensible. He drinks to excess, to the point of her once finding him covered in his own vomit. He is heartless and concerned solely about himself and thinks lifting a finger to help anyone is too much exertion. He is rude. He is a boor. He hates the Irish because they killed his beloved father in battle and blinded him in one eye. She is Irish. An indentured servant to his American cousins. She is meek with her employers, but displays a streak of boldness in opinions with him. And he finds himself increasing fascinated.

Kelly never does anything in one fell swoop. Hers is a slow build up of change-of-heart. How can the heroine fall in love with him, you imagine, after how she finds him? She initially finds him a loathsome person, and yet, she decides to serve out her indenture, which he has bought, by reforming him. That he agrees, kicking and screaming, is a miracle, and the making of him. He employs her as his secretary because she is good at it. She is virtually re-moulding his life, and thus, making him see that there is something there within him for him to be proud of.

Kelly masterfully shows them slowly progressing first towards respect, then towards liking and thoughtfulness, and thence to trust and love. On the surface, this seems of like what most romance novels are made out of. However, this book is far from the commonplace. His shifting perception of Emma despite her Irishnesses and managing ways, her recognition of his worth and what makes him tick, his thoughtfulness of her happiness, her thinking the best of him...all makes for a lovely story. There is no more I can say about this complex book, other than: Hope you read it!

A Double Deception by Joan Wolf
Category: Traditional Regency
Comments: Only Wolf can turn a tragic tale into one of hope. Both the hero and heroine have suffered greatly in their first marriages. They are filled with shame over it, and yet, they were young and innocent and trusting and were betrayed. The secret behind the failure of his first marriage is shocking, and it is courageous of Wolf to take her story there.

Wolf is an author who truly makes you like her protagonists. They are innately such good people. He is a brilliant scientist, and I really enjoyed all the passages that show him working at something he is truly passionate about. After the sudden suicide of his wife, he had returned to the navy, unable to sustain life at home. He left behind a baby. Luckily, his beloved aunt steps in and invites the heroine, who is suddenly a widow, to look after the boy. She is eager to leave her home and the dominance of her parents, and prizes her independence in caring boy with whom she is utterly in love. She becomes the de facto head of the household, overseeing the house, consulting with the steward, and maintaining a social life.

And then the hero returns. The little boy acts as a glue and a reason for them to come together and to make decisions jointly for his benefit. You would think that the story is now running along predictable tracks, but Wolf has a great second half of the story that makes everything complicated. Someone is trying to kill the heroine and everyone is suspicious that it is the hero. This situation allows both the characters to shine and really is the making of the story. How they rise up to the challenge of solving the issue through caring and trusting each other is wonderful to see. Wolf's strength is in inter-personal interactions.

Lord Richard's Daughter by Joan Wolf
Category: Traditional Regency
Comments: The setting of this book is an unusual one in traditional Regencies. They meet in Africa at a private slave auction, where he is sitting among the Arab buyers and she is the scantily-clad houri being auctioned off. He recognizes that she is British, like him, and brings her home. He wants to send her back safely to her grandmother in England. He is intensely attracted to her, but knows that his adventuring ways make him a lamentable husband. She is intensely attracted to him, but she is so done with unreliable, selfishly independent men after her father dragged her through Africa on missionary work.

What they have in common is a love of Africa. A love of travel. And passionate love for each other just as they are. No one in Regency Society can understand them like they can each other. She is a misfit among Regency misses; he is a misfit among his noble peers.

The story is about how they each change their ideas about themselves, their values, and their notions of how life should be, and is, to fit their lives together. I said in the above review that Wolf's strength is in inter-personal interactions. And that is so true in this book. Wolf also does passion and romantic tenderness between her protagonists so well that it is palpable to the reader. This is why I read romance, not for the plethora of sex scenes.

The Rebellious by Joan Wolf
Category: Traditional Regency
Comments: This is a May-December, nobleman-ward romance, which may not work for everyone because the protagonists meet when she is not even ten and he is almost twenty and already a duke with its attendant responsibilities. She loves him from from the start. He has no romantic feelings for her, only filial love. He spends hours of his time with her when he is home and away from his duties and they become very close.

He first notices her when she turns sixteen-seventeen, and he realizes that she is not a child anymore. He is extremely circumspect and incommunicative of his growing feelings for her, convinced that she would be better off married to a husband towards whom she feels romantic love. He is certain that she has no interest in him in that way. She loves him intensely, but she is also certain that he is indifferent to her.

They are knuckleheads over it for most of the book. There is much pining. Much unrequited angst. This is not a book about romantic tenderness, but about passionately-felt love held in check. All the feelings are internal. But just as intense as the love expressed in the book above. How extraordinary is that? The entire romantic relationship happens inside each other, not openly towards each other. Yet, they are so attuned to one another that when the reveal comes, they instnatly know, that is a forever kind of romantic love.