Tuesday, March 31, 2020

Reading in the Time of Coronavirus

I am sure, Gabriel García Márquez would've been rolling his eyes at the title of this post if he were alive.

Living in the eye of the storm, or rather, one of the epicenters of the coronavirus has altered my current life immeasurably and my future irrevocably. Life as we knew it will never be the same again because the virus will have ravaged our bodies, our relationships, our economies...our very civilization. (People are stealing toilet paper from other people's garages. o_O)

For me personally, this has involved juggling work, online coursework, and homeschooling, and I am sitting at the kitchen table with the kids all day while my beautiful new home office setup languishes upstairs. As a result of homeschooling, my work has suffered even though I am part time, and I am behind on my online course even though it is self-paced. I have no clue how full-time working parents with young kids are managing.

Having said that, we are very lucky that our schools were able to swiftly pivot from in-person to online teaching. They sent home prepared packets and iPads and laptops all set up ready to go. From day one, it has been full bore. This is the upside of social isolation. The downside is that, while older kids are more autonomous, the younger ones and their parents have struggled with the technology and all the work, and parents have struggled getting their kids to listen to them and sit at the table. I have always admired teachers, but now, my respect knows no bounds. How in the world do they keep a class of 20 wiggle worms sitting on chairs doing work for hours a day?

Speaking of Romance...

Two years ago, I had a marvelous conversation with the lovely Jennifer Kloester, Georgette Heyer’s official biographer, for USA Today Happy Ever After. I am delighted that the podcast Heyer Today by Fable Gazers featured that INTERVIEW on their blog.

I find contemporaries sometimes a harder go than historicals. This could be because I usually go with tried and true authors and some new-to-me authors for historicals, but I am more adventurous when it comes to contemporaries by going for debut, indie, unknown, and big-name authors alike.

Island Affair by Priscilla Oliveras
Category: Contemporary Romance
Comments: This is a hug of a book—it fills the heart to the brim with its tenderness, warm-heartedness and kindness. With some books, you know from the very beginning how wonderful the characters and their story are going to be and that feeling only grows with every page you turn.

She is a celebrity social media influencer with a hugely popular blog and partnerships with many successful people and organization. She lives in New York City but is considering a move to Miami to work on a clothing line. Despite her success, within her family, Sara has always felt underappreciated and misunderstood—an outsider almost—in their coterie of doctors. That persistent anxiety of not belonging had led her to make maladaptive choices in her young years.

He is a firefighter paramedic of steely resolve and steely muscles. He is a Conch, a Cuban American, living in the Florida Keys. For his reaction to an incident at work, his Captain has given him a week off to recuperate. He is smarting at the enforced time off, which, in his family of fire-fighters, is a mark of disgrace. So he is at disgruntled loose ends.

They meet near the airport when Sara discovers that her loser boyfriend has stood her up when she needed him the most—to attend her family gathering so her family feels Sara is settled into a stable relationship. His calm, helpful demeanor and instinctive desire to want to help people allows her to trust him on a whim. And so, she begs him to be her fake boyfriend for the week her family is on vacation on the Florida Keys to pull the wool over their eyes. He cautiously acquiesces, though secretly, he thinks, “Coño, what a harebrained idea!” But he rolls with it, because he has time to kill after all. My review is here.

Forever My Duke by Olivia Drake
Category: Regency Romance
Comments: What starts out as a series of volatile encounters between two wildly opposing personalities mellows into tenderness and a vibrant passion that makes you sigh in satisfaction of a wonderfully well-written romance.

The duke has been brought up to be high on his consequence and expect everyone’s obeisance as his due. He deals with the world with chilly hauteur and cool deliberation and orders his life with decorum and emotionless precision. She is an American who has killed a man, hacked her way from the frontier to the coast and crossed an ocean to bring a small boy to the only relatives left to him. She is fiercely independent and believes passionately in the equality of all people—she despises the British class system and its profligate nobility.

The most interesting sections of the story are their conversations about his rank and responsibilities and her opinions about the heredity class system where vast wealth and wretched poverty are merely an accident of birth. The beauty of this book is how these such disparate people attentively listen to each other, contemplate what has been said even if they are violently opposed to that opinion, and then proceed to make adjustments and compromises to their thinking. Mature and intelligent characters are a thing of beauty in a book. My review is here.

Secret Heir Seduction by Reese Ryan
Category: Contemporary Romance
Comments: She, a diamond heiress and daughter of a US Senator, is a highly sought-after jewelry designer for celebrities. He is the founder and chief designer of a rapidly growing performance wear company and is taking his clothing line to LA Fashion Week shortly. They meet in a small town where he is there to collaborate with a health and lifestyle company to create a line of athletic wear and she is there to meet her affianced clients for design consultations for their wedding rings and other jewelry pieces.

Five years ago, in graduate school, they had been passionate lovers and very much in love. And yet, inexplicably, he had lied to her and cut ties. Now that they are back in each other’s company, the attraction is still very much there, but it is tempered by his past behavior How can she trust him again? He had broken it—what she then thought, irrevocably—and yet, inexplicably, she finds herself teetering on the cusp of trusting him again. My review is here.

Chasing Cassandra by Lisa Kleypas
Category: Victorian Romance
Comments: This book is one of the highlights of The Ravenels series, and it is all because of the hero. Kleypas tends to be a hero-centric writer, and over the years, she has created wonderful male leads.

He is incredibly wealthy and owns a vast empire of companies that he has built through sheer dint of hard work, a punishing work ethic and the force of his personality and charm. His childhood was one of deprivation of creature comforts and affection. That experience has hardened him into severely repressing all emotions—he claims to have exactly five feelings. Naturally, he has convinced himself that he is unable to love another.

All throughout her life thus far, she has thought she is a quiet person with modest ambitions—a cozy life in the country, dogs, children, and a husband who loves her and whom she loves. After meeting the hero, she suddenly realizes that she truly hankers after the uncontainable and, possibly, the unreachable. This should scare her, but with him, and only with him, she is more than she had ever envisioned herself to be.

He never allows her to put herself down or to think less of herself. He believes she can do anything she sets her mind to. He sees more potential in her than she could’ve imagined for herself. As a result, her growth in confidence and assertiveness throughout the second half of the book, but especially towards the end, is wonderful to see as is also how exciting and fulfilling that is for both of them. My review is here.

My One True Cowboy by Soraya Lane
Category: Contemporary Western Romance
Comments: Every time a discussion of westerns comes up, I am always bemoaning the fact that there aren’t enough, historical or contemporary. So when this book crossed my desk, I jumped at the chance to review it.

She is a trust-fund baby, born on a wealthy ranch in Texas. She is determined not to use her trust fund, and starting from scratch, she builds up a tremendously successful company in LA and gets her name talked about as an entrepreneur to watch out for. Now she is back in Texas, ostensibly for Father’s Day, but in reality, because she lost her business and she is financially broke and heartbroken; she’s even planning on selling her dream home. She is ashamed of her failure and is extremely reluctant to tell her family about it, because to them she is the golden child, the go-getter, the high achiever.

Logan Brody grew up on a neighboring ranch to Angelina. He was very popular in high school with the girls whom he charmed and with the boys who were his pals. He was an extrovert and the life of a party. After high school, he went off to war with great optimism and patriotism, but returned broken in mind, spirit, and body. A recluse now, he works on his parents’ ranch, from sunup to sundown so that he does not have to think about what happened. Lane does a good job of showing the effect war has on healthy young people. He has significant trust issues. My review is here.

Bride by Arrangement: My Darling Echo by Gayle Wilson
Category: Regency Romance Novella
Comments: I give this book high marks for an unusual premise and an unusual unfolding of that premise. It came across highly recommended—'an 'A' read for two people—but it was a 'B+' read for me, primarily because of the execution of the middle of the story. While the romance is slow, and I really like slow, there are moments in the middle where it almost stalls, before it picks up again.

He became visually impaired in battle before he was required to assume an earldom. But he is a proud man, and through sheer hard work and a decision not to indulge in self-pity, he has made a success of his estate and title, and he pursues his seat in the House of Lords with dedication and purpose. In order to help him with all the work he accomplishes every day, he has hired a reader, a woman he chose because he liked her voice. And over the course of two years, he has fallen in love with the voice and what the voice allows him to do, even though he doesn't know much more about her.

She is a young widow with dependents—her young child and an elderly woman—and she is one step above penury. So when the earl proposes marriage, she is floored and by turns feels that she is so far beneath him that she should turn him down and that here is a solution to all her worries and cares. She has great respect for him and is attracted to him. But what he is proposing is a marriage of convenience, a business proposition: she would be easily available to him whenever he needed a reader, she would be able to bring up her son in security and comfort.

His valet is the one egging both parties on and trying to engineer a love match. While the leads are no slouches, he quite steals the show.

Duke Darcy's Castle by Syrie James
Category: Victorian Romance
Comments: I have liked James's Austen books, so I was curious about her historical romance. The premise was interesting: He is the new impoverished duke of an ancient Cornish castle and she is an architect sent down from London to design improvements to the interior of the castle, architecturally as well as interior decoratively. Unfortunately, what was a promising beginning, was sunk by the writing. The story did not feel like it was unfolding organically from the characters, but rather the author's dictates.

The heroine's inner monologue did not match her actions. The hero behaved like a true-to-form rake but without the depth to explain her fascination. Given that she struggled through architecture school in Victorian times where she was the lone female in a sea of men and graduated at the top of her class, I did not see the strength and determination in her that it would've taken for her to achieve what she did. The story was inexorably pulled to the end without allowing for complex character or plot development. But the worse part was the language. This was no wallpaper historical. Instead, it was an American contemporary in period dress.

Of Curses and Kisses by Sandhya Menon
Category: YA Contemporary Romance
Comments: I had read all of Sandhya Menon's books till this one and I had loved them, but this one was so different. I really tried to like the book, starting and stopping multiple times thinking perhaps it was my mood, but it just didn't appeal to me. In all the previous books, her voice was fresh and light and very funny while the characters were mature and the emotions were real. The premise of this book was flimsy, and the characters were bland and overwrought, and their emotions were a bit silly. There was none of the humor of Menon's previous books. While I am not tied to likeability of characters in the books I read, in this book, it felt like Menon was trying hard—too hard?—to make them likeable and not succeeding.

Jaya Rao is a princess from Mysuru, India. Her family and an earl's family, the Emersons, in England have had a generational feud over a ruby that her family claimed was stolen from them. Over the years, there has been a lot of bad blood between the two families, culminating in the public disgrace of Jaya's younger sister and subsequent banishment of the two princesses to a boarding school in Aspen. There, Jaya meets Grey Emerson, who she suspects is behind her sister's disgrace. She decides to engineer a revenge by having him fall in love with her and then breaking his heart. He, in turn, is haunted by the ruby pendant she is wearing, where every fall of a ruby means his death is that much closer—it is something he had been brought up to believe in. This is the flimsy gothic premise, which Jaya and Emerson don't quite make into a fully-fleshed out story.

Undercover Bromance by Lyssa Kay Adams
Category: Contemporary Romance
Comments: The problem with some of the books like these lies with the label "rom-com" being synonymous with immaturity on the page. I can't abide pettiness, sitting in each other's pockets, hugely exaggerated emotions, bickering without having an adult conversation—in general, acting like immature twenty-somethings when you're supposed to be thirty plus and very responsible and successful at your job (I am told this over and over but never see it). The romantic comedy sub-genre is iffy for me. The best books like Lucy Parker's books do a superb job, but many tend to be so over-the-top and in-your-face with a decided lack of subtlety that the characters almost become stereotypical as the story is told in tropes.

She is a superb pastry chef. He is a very wealthy man with a string of nightclubs and bars to his name. They meet when he is out on a date with a gorgeous woman at a very expensive restaurant where she is the pastry chef. He orders their $1000 cupcake and while ceremoniously handing it over to him, she drops it. Her boss, a famous celebrity chef wants to chew her out, but when she goes up to his office, she catches him sexually molesting a fellow restaurant worker. She gets fired for her plain speaking and is determined to expose him to the world, which never sees this side of him.

The hero is her sister's husband's good friend. So they know each other. Both these friends, with other very high profile men, are in a romance reading book club together, hence the title. Our hero gets everyone involved in the shenanigans to out the celebrity chef—going against the heroines explicitly-stated wishes. She and he have a very contentious relationship for no good reason I could fathom. She has sharp corners and he is a softie and keeps trying to make nice with her. They are fighting. Then they're banging. And eventually, they are loving. This book was a miss for me—pity, because it was heavily touted as one of the top books of the year.

Catwings by Ursula K. Le Guin, illustrated by S.D. Schindler
Category: Children's Early Chapter Book
Comments: This is a 1988 book by Le Guin and the illustrations in this 2006 reprinted book are the original ones. This is the first in the Catwings series, and is the story of four cats who are born underneath the city dumpster. They are ordinary kittens in every which way except that they have wings. After they are barely grown, their mother urges them away from the dangerous alley into better climes. They fly away only to land in a forest. Now these city cats are suddenly faced with creatures of the forest against whom they have no defense. The book ends when they befriend two kind children. I had no idea that Le Guin wrote stories for the really young as well. This quartet of stories is just lovely!

Beastly Verse by JooHee Yoon
Category: Children's Picture Book
Comments: This debut book combines well-known poems with the stellar artwork by JooHee Yoon. Some of these poems, I learned in my childhood, when memorization and recitation was a requirement; as a result I still remember them. I have always marveled at poetry for its ability to capture thoughts and emotions using just a handful of words. Yoon's art brings to vibrant life sixteen poems about non-human creatures, real and imagined, and as varied in sentiment and sensibility as Lewis Carroll’s playful The Crocodile, D.H. Lawrence’s homage to the hummingbird, Christina Rossetti’s celebration of the butterfly metamorphosis, and William Blake’s bright-burning ode to the tiger.

The words are brought to life through Yoon's imagination. Trained as a printmaker and fascinated by the traditional, industrial techniques of artists from the first half of the twentieth century, Yoon uses only three colors—cyan, magenta, and yellow—on flat color layers, which she then overlaps to create a controlled explosion of secondary colors. She is able to produce a kaleidoscope of emotion through these few colors, much like poets are able to build a plethora of stories with a few words. A gorgeous book—with gatefolds and thick-thick paper—that definitely deserves a look. One caution is that this is for older children and adults—those who can appreciate the poems.

Kiki & Jax by Marie Kondo, co-written & illustrated by Salina Yoon
Category: Children's Picture Book
Comments: Kiki and Jax are the best of friends even though they are quite different from each other. Whereas Jax enjoys sorting, Kiki enjoys collecting. Jax’s house is always neatly organized. Kiki, on the other hand, does not like to throw away things and stashes them willy-nilly everywhere till she can’t find anything when she is looking for them. She is always running late, and sometimes, she misses playdates with Jax altogether. And she is simply unable to enjoy being in her house—she finds it overwhelming.

The inspiration for this story is of course Marie Kondo’s KonMari system of organization. A tidy house is a source of comfort and peace, and when you regularly practice tidying up, it itself can be a fount of joy and accomplishment. When Kiki eventually confesses her problem, Jax decides that the best way for him to be Kiki’s friend is to help her organize her home and also show her how to stay organized. It’s that last bit that is the most important part of any organization system as Kondo will tell you.

Nian: The Chinese New Year Dragon by Virginia Loh-Hagan, illustrated by Timothy Banks
Category: Children's Picture Book
Comments: This is the perfect book to explain the Chinese New Year traditions to children.

Mei is a young girl living with her mother in a village on the edge of sea. She hates the first day of spring, because Nian, the fierce evil dragon who lives under the mountain in the sea, loves to come out to eat little girls and boys. Mei is scared. Her whole village is scared. But help was at hand. On the eve of the first day of spring, a magical warrior visited Mei in her dreams. He says to her, "Hundred of years have passed and new year is coming. Nian’s power grows stronger. And my spell grows weaker each year. You must defeat Nian in fifteen days or Nian will be free forever."

And so begin's Mei's quest to best the dragon. She takes on the mantle of responsibility and comes up with innovative ways to defeat the dragon again and again. Such is her leadership and command of the villagers, they are willing to do whatever she says despite her being so young. Eventually, she is victorious. The Lunar New Year is celebrated for fifteen days and follows this story. The author added a twist in her story by making the fighter female.

Saturday, February 29, 2020

My February Reading

Over the past weekend, I read Georgette Heyer's Devil's Cub and then earlier in the week, I finished These Old Shades. And then as life would have it, just as I finished the two books, Janet Webb told me about this amazing Heyer podcast whose episodes 2 and 4 feature the two books I just read.

The episodes alternate between discussions about Heyer coupled with interviews of various people and discussions about her books. The people they feature include Stephen Fry, Heyer's biographer Jen Kloester, Hollywood producers, Australian biographers, some well-known British readers, authors including Mary Jo Putney, Susannah Fullerton the head of the Jane Austen Society in Australia who compares Austen and Heyer, and many others. In addition to discussions of the book, they also also feature fans and newbies alike as they seek to try to convert people who don't know about her. For example, in the second episode, they had a playwright and a 15-year-old. It was great to see their opinions.

Here is their reading list of books. I listened to their first episode on Wednesday featuring über fan Stephen Fry with a smile on my face as he waxed rhapsodic about the characters, the worldbuilding, and the cant and mused over the inexplicable lack of interest from filmmakers to bring Heyer's works to the screen, and I fell in love with the podcast. When Fry said that sometimes he wishes he were a little bit sick so he could have an excuse to lie in bed and read Heyer all day long, I fell in love with him.

The company is Fable Gazers, and this is their second season. (Every season, their focus is on different topics/people/ideas.) If you are a Heyer fan, I urge you to give their first episode a listen. Their production quality is superb and the host is a great interviewer, knowing just when to let her interviewees talk and when to gently guide them with great questions.

In this reading roundup below, I comment on romance novels and children's picture books.

These Old Shades by Georgette Heyer
Devil's Cub by Georgette Heyer
Category: Traditional Georgian Romance
Comments: What can I say here about these two stories that hasn't been said before? These two books were my first Heyers (in that order), and I have read and re-read them since my teens. In fact, Heyer's books were what launched my decades-long love of the British-based historical romances set in the late 18th, 19th, and early 20th centuries. I used to like TOS over DC, but this time around, DC edged TOS out even though the Duke of Avon bits were among the most interesting parts of DC. Rupert, the scamp, had me in gusts of laughter over and over again as the stories sometimes descended into farce. One thing I will say about Heyer is how well-matched her heroes and heroines are on multiple levels. She is so perceptive of human nature and foibles.

With this reading, I noticed the fat-shaming Heyer does. Fat people are bad people or boring or silly. There is definite classism with Avon—he was absolutely against upward mobility among the classes. If either of these severely bother you, these books are not for you.

The Mock Marriage by Dorothy Mack
Category: Traditional Regency Romance
Comments: He is a lord who used to be favorite of his grandmother and poised to become heir to her estate, when she stipulated that he marry the girl of his choice while repudiating the one he chose. In a fit of the sullens, he ran away to war. Now he is recently returned, mature and wiser and willing to make peace with his grandmother, but still not willing to buckle under her dictate. He needs to find a wife fast.

She is the offspring of a very old twig of the genteel classes from Northumberland now reduced by poverty to take to the stage. However, she is being housed by her previous nurse who is fiercely protective of her virtue. Unfortunately, as a stage actress, she is courted by the idle scions of the nobility who vie to become her protector. Her brother has incurred insurmountable debts and seems to imply that she should sell herself to save him. She needs to find an alternative fast.

The best solution to their dilemma of course is that they enter into a temporary but real marriage-of-convenience with him paying her the requisite sum to act as his wife. The plan is that once he has secured his inheritance they would divorce. Well, in their desperation, they did not think things through—divorce was incredibly difficult to get and who knew how long they'd need the ruse to last?

Having given her characters a dilemma, Mack then has them deal with their rash decision, and the book is about how they behave with each other and the others in the story. Mack has created wonderful secondary characters, and the heroine's interactions with them reveal so much about her. This was my first Dorothy Mack story, and I look forward to more of her trads. One thing to note, is that this is slow story, and it works well for me, but it may not be for everyone.

Love Lettering by Kate Clayborn
Category: Contemporary Romance
Comments: I gave this book an 'A+' in my book spreadsheet. This is going to go on my Best Books of 2020 list. I LOVED it. I consider Kate Clayborn an author of prodigious talent, and in this book, she has created perfection. My review is here.

Lilian and the Irresistible Duke by Virginia Heath
Category: Historical Romance
Comments: I am always interested in books where the romance involves older protagonists. Those stories tend to be more complex because so much of the protagonists’ lives has already been lived. They bring experiences and ideas to the relationship that younger characters just cannot. As a result, many of those books tend to deal more with internal conflict as opposed to external conflict as the characters try to overcome fixed ideas in order to fit their lives together.

She has been widowed these many years and has worked incredibly hard through the lonely difficult years to bring up her three children despite her reduced circumstances. In addition, she has successfully run the foundation that was her late beloved husband’s passion. Nowadays however, she has been reduced to being a spectator in her grown children’s marriages and her authority over the foundation has also lessened as her children have taken that on.

He is an Italian duke who is a handsome charmer and very popular with the ladies. Unlike his peers however, he is a working aristocrat with a thriving gallery through which he connects old art with nouveau riche people. He has had a turbulent marriage that has made him adamant about not getting caught again. He enjoys many casual liaisons with the firm stipulation in place that he is not interested is anything beyond the physical.

In order to show how loving a second relationship is, some romance novels tend to severely downplay or even disparage the first relationship. But Heath carefully shows how it is possible for one person to love twice, to love very different people and to be happy with both of them. My review is here.

Temporary Wife Temptation by Jayci Lee
Category: Contemporary Romance
Comments: Début author Jayci Lee has burst on the romance scene with six books scheduled between now and the summer of 2022. Temporary Wife Temptation is her first book and the first in her Heirs of Hansol series featuring the Korean-American Song family. He is the VP of Business and Development at Hansol Incorporated, one of the top fashion retailers in the country. The company was started by his grandparents, and he has worked his way up the chain to where he is now poised to take over the role of CEO if he can land a partnership with another fashion conglomerate. At Garrett’s level, a man with a family is seen as a reliable man with whom to do business.

She is the youngest HR Director at Hansol Incorporated and is a dedicated workaholic herself and very successful at her job. However recently, her life has been completely shaken up by the death of her beloved sister and brother-in-law in a car accident. Her sister’s dying wish was that Natalie bring up her daughter as her own. Unfortunately for her, the baby’s grandparents are blocking her case for adoption, and social workers see more stability in adoption of babies by wealthy families than by single parents. So what could be a better solution than for the hero and heroine to contract a temporary marriage of convenience to be dissolved once he has his position as CEO and she has custody? My review is here.

The Worst Best Man by Mia Sosa
Category: Contemporary Romance
Comments: While this story is pitched as a rom-com and many people found the book very funny, the wit did not tickle my funny bone. However I found the drama compelling, especially, the growth in maturity of the characters. I finished reading the book in the morning and ended up at a Brazilian restaurant for dinner. This book will make you hungry.

For someone searching for that other person who doesn’t push her buttons, doesn’t force her out of her comfort zone to confront uncomfortable emotions, the hero is the worst person with whom to be involved. She is a Brazilian American wedding planner to DC professionals, but she was jilted at the altar. The culprit is her fiancée's brother. Said brother works for his mother’s company, which is a one-stop shop for marketing and publicity services. His life has been ruled since childhood with his rivalry with his older “perfect” brother.

For financial reasons, she is looking to expand her business, and her dream job is to be the wedding planner for a family-own small chain of boutique hotels. In order to prove to his mother that he is fully capable of handling the marketing campaign for an important client on his own, he is eager to work with the owner of a small chain of hotels to finesse her plans. Of course, they end up being forced to work together and to get along. My review is here.

The Proudest Blue: A Story of Hijab and Family by Ibtihaj Muhammad with S.K. Ali, illustrated by Haten Aly
Category: Children's Picture Book
Comments: Muhammad was the first Muslim American woman in hijab to compete and medal in the Olympics. She names the characters in her story after her sisters. This is a beautiful story of being strong in the face of criticism, of loving your faith and who you are, of sisterly love, and of modeling strength and graciousness. Wearing the hijab in America is an act of deep courage right when girls are dealing with the discomfort and self-consciousness of puberty—not to mention hormones. The hijab ties young girls to their faith spiritually and physically and is beyond the understanding of many peers. Muhammad was frequently asked why she was wearing that tablecloth on her head, so remembering her childhood and the "othering" she suffered, she wrote this book so other girls who look like her can see themselves in a picture book. They can see two sisters taking pride in their hijab and their faith and each other. "My hijab is beautiful," she says to those girls, "and so is yours."

Up Down Inside Out by JooHee Yoon
Category: Children's Picture Book
Comments: It is less a typical children’s picture book than it is a delightful curiosity for children of all ages. It explores the interactive nature of books with flaps, die-cuts, pull-outs, and a dramatic gatefold, while inviting discovery and expansive thinking from the reader. The humor and playfulness in the images with its discoverability of joy is as appealing as it is surprising. Exaggerated emotions add to the whimsical, comic nature of the visual renderings. Each of the eighteen maxims challenges the reader to really think through the words and what they mean and how the visual depiction translates and adds to the meaning of the words. It is not merely an image of the saying, but rather the essence imagined through a printmaker’s creativity.

Patience, Miyuki by Roxane Marie Galliez, illustrated by Seng Soun Ratanavanh
Category: Children's Picture Book
Comments: In this book, the young girl Miyuki is eager for springtime and for her garden to bloom. But on the first day of spring, when she visits her garden, she is sad to see that one little flower is still asleep. The story follows Miyuki’s search for the purest water for her little flower—and the farther she searches, the more frustrated she becomes. So ends the first perfect day of spring with Miyuki having been unable to appreciate it.

Good things in life are worth waiting for, worth slowing down for in order to cherish their value. Everything, everyone, grows in their own time, and impatience cannot hurry them along. Growing nature symbolizes hope, longevity, and good fortune. Miyuki’s wise grandfather asks her to slow down so she can recognize the gifts the natural world is giving her, instead of spurning them in her hurry to force a flower to bloom. This book is as much a story of nature as it is a story of nurture, of teaching the young girl the importance of mindfulness. Miyuki’s grandfather explains to her the importance of imbuing the present moment with her presence, rather than focusing on a future event of great uncertainty. The book is thus an emissary of deep existential wisdom.

Wangari Maathai: The Women Who Planted Millions of Trees by Franck Prévot, translated by Dominique Clément, illustrated by Aurélia Fronty
Category: Children's Picture Book
Comments: Originally in French, this is the story of a woman born in British-occupied Kenya who planted millions of hopeful seeds that have become forests today—in a sense keeping her alive to this day. Given that her name is Wa-ngari, meaning she who belongs to the leopard, from her childhood, she always thought of herself as a part of the forest. Early in her childhood, her mother taught her an important lesson: "A tree is worth more than its wood."

Wangari was inspired to plant trees when she saw her beloved forest being denuded by the greedy British imperialists to plant tea. Wangari was blessed with a thirst for knowledge and got a high school diploma when few African girls even knew how to read. She comes to an American university to study on a special program instituted by John F. Kennedy. She returns to Kenya when it gains independence, and she is shocked how poorly her country has fared, especially its forests. So she decides to use her education and her network of people at home and abroad to educate them how a forest is one of the most precious treasures of humanity. She started the Green Belt Movement in 1977 and traveled from village to village to educate people. She raised funds from Kenya and from international organization to plant her thirty million of trees.

And in so doing, she empowers women. She believes in confident women and entrusts tree nurseries to women, paying them per tree that grows. She believes that confident women have an important role to play int heir families, in their villages, and on the entire African continent. She is shot at, jailed, and receives death threats, yet every time she is released, she becomes more involved in the political process because that is the way to truly effect the change she wants to see. She is eventually elected as assistant environmental minister. In 2004, she receives the Nobel Peace Prize, the first for an African woman, for the countless seeds of hope she planted and grew over the years.

We need another Wangari Maathai in our midst today even as the White House moves to destroy protected forests and displace/kill wild animals.

Friday, January 31, 2020

My January Reading

This year, I have embarked on a careful plan to read more outside Romance. While I did some of that last year, this year's plan is a little more intentional. I have started poetry and nonfiction books this month that I will read slowly over the year, and then there are fiction and nonfiction books that have been on my list for a long time that I would like to get to every month. This month's read was Ijeoma Oluo's book (more below).

As usual, I have the romance novels up on the top, followed by YA, mid-grade, poetry, nonfiction, and children's picture books.

Headliners by Lucy Parker
Category: Contemporary Romance
Comments: How does Lucy Parker continue to deliver one fabulous book after another every year? This is her fifth book and my fifth ‘A’ for her. I read her first Act Like It in one sitting and laughed and laughed so much that my husband read it as well. He loved it—one of a rare handful of romance novels he had read. Since then, he has read every one of Parker’s books and can’t wait to dive into this one. Two feuding work colleagues discover attraction and love. On the surface, this sounds like a common premise these days, but in Parker’s hands it turns into a story of fascinating characters that is told in an engaging, fast-paced style and is punctuated with acerbic comments and biting witty one-liners.

For years, she and he have been rival presenters on the same TV network. Neither can stand the other, and the feud has involved barbs being aired about the other on their shows. The viewers have lapped it up and the numbers ratings for both shows are high. Through certain events, they are in the doghouse with their network owner and he forces them to work together to save the failing morning show. As you can imagine, They Are Not Happy being forced to co-host.

A signature Parker storytelling style is that the protagonists movement from being on opposing sides to being on the same side isn’t instantaneous, but thoughtful and careful. But once they are on the same side, they are all-in—no misunderstandings are allowed to fester, because they always look at the other in a benevolent charitable light. This to me is the hallmark of their HEA—the ability to give the other the benefit of the doubt at all times. My review is here.

Uncovering the Merchant's Secret by Elisabeth Hobbes
Category: Medieval Romance
Comments: These days, medievals are few and it’s rarer still to find a good one. I am a huge fan of medievals, so I was especially delighted to read this book. He is ostensibly a wine merchant doing business between France and Bristol, but his real task is helping to solve the impasse between choosing the rightful heir to the dukedom of Brittany as an aide to the English King’s Lieutenant in France. He is suffering from grief and depression from the death of his beloved wife many, many months ago. She is a fierce, indomitable woman who owns a wealthy fort on the coast of Brittany. Twice-widowed with two children, who are old enough to be fostered away from home, she finds herself the captain of her own life and ships. One night, she finds him shipwrecked on her beach, with his memory all gone. Is he friend or foe in the game of politics?

An amnesiac is not a storyline that usually appeals to me, but as with most things, in the hands of a talented storyteller, even the unpalatable become engrossing. And so it was in the case of this book. Hobbes explores amnesia in the context of Jack’s grief over his wife. The heart of the story for me is the relationship between Blanche and Jack from Blanche’s perspective. She is an independent woman in command of her environs. Many depend on her, but she depends on no one. For such a self-sufficient and self-reliant woman to admit even to herself that occasionally allowing someone else, even a man, to share her burden is sweet takes a lot of courage. My review is here.

The Prince of Broadway by Joanna Shuppe
Category: Historical Romance
Comments: This story is set in NYC during the Gilded Age. He grew up a criminal and believes that has stained his soul black. Now he skates criminality with his illegal gambling houses of high and low repute. A brilliant businessman, he has amassed a fortune from nothing through ruthless decisions, cutthroat choices and hefty bribes to police and politicians alike. She is a beautiful Uptown débutante of great wealth and privilege flouts his rules to enter his club (for men only) and proceeds to beguile and win every night she shows up. Asking her up to his office to uncover her mystery is irresistible. She lives her life boldly, outside the lines of what society considered normal female behavior. To secure her independence, her plan is to open her own casino for Uptown women (no men allowed). She decides to apprentice herself to him—best way to learn the business is to start from the top.

These two are polar opposites, it would seem on the surface. But Shupe probes under the surface and keeps digging to show how similar they are in all the ways that matter personality-wise. Thus you see that their disparate upbringing is really the superficial stuff; the reality is their personalities and the respect they have for each other. I can't believe I haven't read Shupe before. Now I want to go out and read All The Things. My review is here.

Sweet Talkin' Lover by Tracey Livesay
Category: Contemporary Romance
Comments: This is a small-town romance done well. She escaped the small town life to the big northern city where she is now a high-powered marketing manager of a cosmetics company. He is the first family of a small town in the South; his family has been mayors of their town for generations. After one thoughtless night fueled by alcohol, her career is on the line, and she has been dispatched to the rural South to evaluate a manufacturing plant, a task usually assigned to junior employees. She is angry, but her hands are tied.

I loved seeing how Livesay brought her real-life group of very close friends into her story by giving her heroine such a warm, supportive friend circle. I believe that who you are is directly influenced by the cohort you keep, so I always look out for who the protagonists are with their friendships and families. It was good to see Livesay address the issue head-on of how black women in the corporate world have to be so many times better as compared with their white compatriots in order to succeed. My review is here.

Tweet Cute by Emma Lord
Category: Contemporary YA Romance
Comments: I loved this book with its sweet romance, sharp bursts of self-deprecating humor, and rapid-fire bantering and turns-of-phrase. It is a début book but reads like something from a more experienced author. She is a senior at an exclusive private school in Manhattan, hyper-focused on her grades, college admissions, debate club, and captaining the girls’ swim team. In her spare time, she passionately bakes for the baking blog she runs with her older sister. She also moonlights as the sarcastically witty Twitter voice for their family-owned mega burger chain.

He is in her class, Ivy League material himself, and on the dive team, but he is also considered by all, including himself, as the laidback class-clown, who is not destined for greatness. He works hard at his family deli and runs their Twitter account. He moonlights as a software app developer; it's a secret passion. Her company steals his deli's secret grilled cheese sandwich recipe and the Twitter Game Wars are open.

The author does a splendid job of showing the push and pull of being a teen — seeking approval and rejecting parental guidance; thinking it can all be handled and hoping for that word of praise and recognition. What I liked about this story is that in order to become an adult, the adolescents do not have to completely break away from their known universe. Independence thus is as simple as asking for respect and consideration and some compromise. My review is here.

New Kid by Jerry Craft
Category: Children's Mid-Grade Comic
Comments: It is tough being a middle-schooler without being the new kid who knows no one and being a black kid in an elite, racially un-diverse school. This is a very funny book with sharp dialogue that makes the poor boy's plight even starker. But this is not an angry book. The boy and his family are hopeful, and the boy seeks to figure out a way to navigate his complex world in which he feels like a fish out of water. Not only does he survive, but he thrives.

The boy grows up in a black neighborhood where his father works at the local community center. The family is very well-integrated into the community and all his friends are kids he grew up with. He wants to go to stay in his neighborhood school till eighth grade and then go to an art high school. He is a gifted sketcher and loves to draw comics. But his brilliant high-profile mother has different plans for him. She wants him to be a part of the wider world with a bigger network of people he will need for his future success. So she decides to send him to an elite private school in seventh grade (first form) kicking and screaming. But instead of sulking his way through the school year, the boy constantly seeks to find his place in the school.

I loved this story very much and cannot recommend it highly enough.

Devotions by Mary Oliver
Category: Poetry
Comments: I started off the year with Oliver's hefty poetry collection from which I will be reading throughout the year. Even in these first few poems, I have managed to find in them things that are seemingly written to alleviate whatever my struggles are at that moment. Whenever I think of Oliver's poetry, these two quotes come to mind:

"In poetry, beauty is no ornament; it is the meaning. It is the truth." —Ursula Le Guin

"A poet’s work is to name the unnameable, to point at frauds, to take sides, start arguments, shape the world, and stop it going to sleep." —Salman Rushdie

I don't have much to comment on the poetry itself yet except for this tidbit that I tweeted a few weeks ago:
Rumi said, There is no proof of the soul.
But isn’t the return of the spring and how it
springs up in our hearts a pretty good hint?

That first line is such a contrast to my experience with Rumi's poetry that I read all last year. He talks intimately and continuously about the soul—his and others—so it is inexplicable that Oliver should say what she says. However, her next two lines are of such beauty and simplicity that all I want to say is Q.E.D. (quod erat demonstrandum).

So You Want to Talk About Race by Ijeoma Oluo
Category: Nonfiction
Comments: On January 24, I was fortunate to see Ijeoma Oluo in person. This is what I said in my Facebook post about it:

"This morning, I attended one of the most important—possibly the most important—event of 2020. Ijeoma Oluo had come to our school to talk about race, anti-racism, microaggressions, intersectionality, cultural appropriation, social media culture, and most significantly, what we can do to counter harm to marginalized people and how we can raise our children to embrace multiculturalism where marginalized people are seen and heard and allowed to participate without fear and with optimism. Oluo was incredibly generous with her time, her expertise, and her willingness to educate. For someone so sought after that she has to repeat this message over and over again for years on end, that she did it with grace and patience speaks volumes about the person she is. I am grateful I read her book So You Want to Talk about Race, so I could understand the privilege I have and what I can do for those who don't."

After the talk, I had a little chat with her one-on-one about cultural appropriation and how recent immigrants and their first-generation children view things differently. What may be a sharing of culture for the immigrant is cultural appropriation for the child. I said that perhaps it may be that the immigrant grew up in a dominant culture where everyone looked like them, whereas their child is a minority in white America and has been subjected to microaggressions from birth. She agreed and she said that as a result of this, the child is more aware when their culture is hijacked without respect or claimed without permission.

Walking by Henry David Thoreau
Category: Nonfiction
Comments: I commented in November on my experiences with going on walks. Here, I want to explore the book a little more. Thoreau's idea of walking is taking four hours out of his day to simply walk freely in the forest. His ideal are those beggars, "saunterers" of the Middle Ages who would walk about during the day and beg for shelter and food in the nights from various people—that was their life. According to Thoreau, these people (almost always men) were wild and free and living the best life they could live. Thoreau looks down on people who walk along sedate paths in parks and he thoroughly looks down on merchants and housewives who are bound by work and do not take the time to walk. Since all of this comes up at the front of the book, his self-righteousness was eye-rolling to say the least, and I had to persevere a little to read on.

But then he used walking as the jumping off point to interesting reflections on history, progress, patriotism, living in the present moment, and so on. At one point he asks, "I believe that climate does react on man—as there is something in the mountain air that feeds the spirit and inspires. Will not man grow to greater perfection intellectually and physically under these influences?" He is right. Of course, he is. Unfortunately, modernity is constrained by circumstances into ever-smaller boxes where freedom is virtually unknown.

An aside: One of Thoreau's discursions is about knowledge and ignorance and which is more valuable. He says, "Which is the best man to deal with—he who know nothing about a subject, and, what is extremely rare, know that he know nothing, or he who really know something about it, but thinks that he knows all?"

To which, seventy-five years later, Bertrand Russell said, "The whole problem with the world is that fools and fanatics are always so certain of themselves, but wiser people so full of doubts."

How to Walk by Thich Nhat Hanh
Category: Nonfiction
Comments: This book on walking is such a contrast to the one above. Whereas Thoreau's walking is all about losing yourself in the outer world, Hanh's walking is all about looking inward. Whereas Thoreau's walker would subsume himself into nature, Hanh's walker would very consciously focus on their breath and their steps. Thoreau needed a forest; for Hanh even a neighborhood sidewalk would do. What is common between both is that walking is meditative and restorative and as important to life as breathing/sleeping/drinking/eating.

This is a Poem that Heals Fish by Jean-Pierre Siméon, illustrated by Olivier Talle, translated by Claudia Zoe Bedrick, founder of Enchanted Lion Books
Category: Children's Picture Book
Comments: "Poetry can break open locked chambers of possibility, restore numbed zones to feeling, recharge desire," said poet and essayist Adrienne Rich. In breathtaking simplicity and loveliness, this book offers a playful, yet profound, answer to what a poem is and what is its use.

The story follows young Arthur's quest to alleviate the boredom of his fish Léon. Arthur's mother advises him to give the fish a poem. But what is a poem? He looks in the kitchen cabinet and elsewhere in the house and realizes it is not a thing he can lay his hands on. Mystified, he decides to ask various wise people he knows who might be able to enlighten him. In her review, philosopher Maria Popova then says that this is "a wonderful meta-story of how poetry comes into being as a tapestry of images, metaphors, and magpie borrowings. Each person along the way contributes to Arthur’s tapestry a different answer, infused with the singular poetic truth of their own life."

One person Arthur knows tells him: A poem is when you are in love and have the sky in your mouth. Another says: It is hot like fresh bread. When you eat it, a little is always left over. How about this one? I thought it was delightful: A poem turns words around, upside down, and—suddenly!—the world is new. However, this response is the one I loved the best: A poem is when you hear the heartbeat of a stone.

Thus, these wise people in Arthur's life echo poet Thom Gunn’s insistence that "poetry is of many sorts and is all around us."

Our Favorite Day by Joowon Oh
Category: Children's Picture Book
Comments: This is a heartwarming picture book written and illustrated by Korean-American Joowon Oh. Meant for the very young, it's an age-old tale of a special loving relation between grandparents and grandchildren. In our world of nuclear families, our children miss these moments with the older generation that will stay with them for their lifetime. With Our Favorite Day, Oh is reminding children how much their grandparents love to spend time with them. Oh is also reminding parents to nurture this relationship for their young ones. For a début book, Oh writes and illustrates with sensitivity and assurance. The art is a great match for the story. Illustrated in watercolors and layered with gouache and paper collages, there is great forward energy in the images. This is mimicked in the suspense of the story.

Chicks Rule by Sudipta Bardhan-Quallen, illustrated by Renée Kurilla
Category: Children's Picture Book
Comments: This is an empowering tale about powerful girls. Nerdy Chick has been so excited about the upcoming Rocket Club meeting. She has worked hard to design and build her rocket and is eager to show it off at the meeting. But when she gets there, she is confronted with a "No Chicks Allowed" sign. It causes her to feel very disappointed at first, and then, fume in frustration. But Nerdy Chick has a backbone of steel, and she is determined that a rocket of her own making will be fired off into space.

There are two themes in this story. One of them is that if people come together and selflessly contribute to a common good, they can make a success of solving difficult problems. The other point of course is that girls can do anything. The book has the chicks marching together with unifying signs in an affirmation to each other that they matter and they can do anything they set their hearts on. This is not just a story for girls to see how strong girls can be and how they can achieve whatever they set out to achieve, but it is important for boys to read this book to see girls do these things. Girls can succeed in whatever it is boys can succeed in, and all children need to understand this.

The Snowy Day by Ezra Jack Keats
Category: Children's Picture Book
Comments: This is a Caldecott winner and has been the most checked-out book (~500,000 times !!) in the New York Public Library's 125-year history. And I found it boring! It is meant for three-year-olds, but it is not the simplistic text that I was turned off by. I have by now reads hundreds of children's picture books ranging over all sorts of ages, including board books for the very young. So it is not that it's a simple book, but rather that it is boring and unimaginative. That it won a Caldecott is amazing, but since it was published in 1962, perhaps the award makes sense. It would never win one today. The ideas are superficial, the layout and flow of text are uninteresting, and the artwork is flat and uninspired. Writers and artists these days are so innovative and seem to really understand children and the way they think—that is the appeal behind their books. Just because it has few words per page and is full of illustrations doesn't mean it's a successful children's book.

Wednesday, January 1, 2020

Happy New Year 2020

And so another year draws to a close and a new year begins. With the passage of time, I have found that I look forward to every year bathed in the hope for a better future for myself—a chance to put my best foot forward and to know that it will be enough, that I will be enough. So I spend a lot of time in the second half of December in contemplation and in writing my goals. These are not esoteric, high-falutin', aspirational goals, but rather practical, measurable goals that will add up to a year of satisfaction and success and peace.

Clearly, I don't always achieve all that I set out to do. So I tinker with them as the year goes on, frequently reminding myself of my hopes at the beginning of the year and tempering them with reality. Yet, I believe in entering the new year with intentionality, not just allowing myself to be swept along with the tide. Quite a few people find goals oppressive. To me, goals are comforting. I have done my thinking and now I have concrete steps set out to achieve what I hope to achieve.

In addition to goals, I choose a word or two that will help me shape the year. Given all the heartbreak and turmoil of last year, my words for this year are: Grace & Hope. And my highest aim for this year is to Be Like A Tree, according to Maria Popova, one of the keenest modern-day intellectual: "May we face the coming year with the steady serenity of a tree—that supreme lover of light, always reaching both higher and deeper, rooted in a network of kinship and ringed by a more patient view of time."

Whatever may be your way of thinking of the new year, my wish for you, dear readers, is that it brings you happiness, because after all, what can be a better measure of success than happiness?

Saturday, December 28, 2019

My December Reading

It is rare for me to read Christmas stories these days, so it's surprising that I read SEVEN this year. I usually shy away from Christmas stories because they usually end up being schmaltzy and saccharine and improbable. But these stories are surprisingly sweet and believable, even in the short story format.

This year, I read 164 books in total: romance, children's picture books, poetry, nonfiction, and literary fiction. The bulk of my reading, of course, was romance with most of them for review for Frolic Media. I look forward to continuing to review romance for Frolic next year. I also have an iron in the fire for children's picture books, but more on that when I have a publication to link to.

It's a Wonderful Regency Christmas: The Duke's Progress by Edith Layton
Category: Traditional Regency Romance Novella
Comments: This is a curious story. Much of the narrative is spent on scene-setting, display of research, and development of the hero, but it all charmed me. The story is only incidentally a romance. It is more a hero's journey, the eponymous "progress"—travel through fellow peers' country estates—for Christmas.

The duke is as famous for his dueling skills as he is for his cutting tongue and icy demeanor, making him an uncomfortable companion at best, but still a highly sought-after guest at balls and country parties for his title and wealth. For all his popularity, the duke is lonely and bored. Layton has made him so nuanced in his outer appearances and behavior and his inner values that even his friends don't know him completely. In all his years so far, he has had held a deeply hidden, passionate hope for love and romance. But such did not come to pass. He now figures he has to get married for the succession and so decides in a fit of melancholy to give in to the Season's Incomparable's machinations. Luckily, on a scant chance that he almost misses, he meets the love of his life and discovers a fun-filled life worth living.

Miss Dominguez's Christmas Kiss and Other Stories: A Ciudad Real Holiday Anthology by Lydia San Andres
Category: Contemporary Romance Short Stories
Comments: Set in Ciudad Real in the early 1900s, the women in these stories are all connected with a boarding house run by Doña Genoveva, where they all reside. It is such a microcosm of society, this boardinghouse—there is so much interpersonal emotions and activities going on, all within the bounds of Doña Genoveva’s rules. My review is here.

"Miss Dominguez’s Christmas Kiss" is a story of a young woman discovering love for the first time and the more experienced young woman guarding the other’s innocence and introducing her to the joys gently and with care. Despite having her own family to celebrate with, Marisol returns early from her holiday to spend Christmas with Lourdes, thus showing her how very much she treasures her. She even talks about taking her to visit her family the next time she goes home.

"Mrs. Gomez’s New Year’s Surprise" is a experienced businesswoman. With New Year’s holiday bearing down on them, their thoughts naturally turn into a reflection of their life so far and with what intention they want to step into the next year. They are both lonely and are finding is at a standstill, so instead of being mired in bitterness, they decide to take a stab at finding happiness...with each other.

"Miss Weiss’s Reyes Present" is a story of love growing by lingering exchanged glances and smiles — for both the other is sweet and solicitous of their feelings. This is also a story of forgiveness. Circumstances can cause a person to fail to keep their word, to let another down. But Letitia giving him the benefit of the doubt and being willing to listen to him explain shows maturity and thoughtfulness towards him and consideration of his feelings, while also honoring the connection between them. Happiness is not transient because both of them believe in it and are willing to resolve their differences to make it happen for them.

A Snowy Little Christmas: Missing Christmas by Kate Claybourn
Category: Contemporary Romance Novella
Comments: A Snowy Little Christmas is an anthology of three Christmas stories: “Starry Night” by Fern Michaels, “Mistletoe and Mimosas” by Tara Sheets and “Missing Christmas” by Kate Clayborn. I was only interested in Clayborn’s novella.

He has been working very closely with her for years, spending hours of time in her company at work, outside work, and while traveling for work. They are very close, but as work confidantes and friends—just not the kind of closeness he desperately seeks. He is a stickler for rules, and one of the rules is no personal emotions muddying up professional relationships. Besides, she isn’t interested in him that way, and he does not want to take the risk to find out. He would never survive the loss were she to go away.

Little does he know, she has likewise buried her attraction and affection for him under layers upon layers of professionalism. She values how close and in sync they are, how they can communicate silently through body language, and almost read each other’s thoughts where work is concerned. And yet, where his personal emotions go, she draws a blank.

One day, elated after a spectacular win at work and frustrated from holding back her attraction for him, she demands almost questioningly that he kiss her. And despite his habit of restraint, despite his misgivings, despite the warning bells tolling in his head about romancing her...he does! And life changes. For them both. What are they to do? My review is here.

One Bed for Christmas by Jackie Lau
Category: Contemporary Romance Novella
Comments: Lau's books just work for me. The hilarity, the warmth, the tenderness, the seriousness, the implausibility, and The Food. He met her when she hit his head with the classroom door and knocked him to the floor in an undergrad calculus class. He fell hard on the floor and hard into love with her once his head stopped spinning. And for twelve long years, he has hidden his love for her but given her unstinting friendship. He knows that she is meant for better things than him and he doesn’t deserve her.

When the story opens, she is the CEO of a popular online dating app, while he is a freelance graphic designer and makes money on the side by dancing to the tunes of an elderly barbershop quartet in an inflatable T-Rex costume. The gulf between them is vast and unbridgeable. And yet, they are friends, see each other casually, and spend time together, and it is always fun. But then she leaves, not to be heard from till the next time. He is lonely. Little does he know that she is lonely in her life as well. My review is here.

Royal Holiday by Jasmine Guillory
Category: Contemporary Romance
Comments: I read this book with a smile on my face from beginning to end. Playful and sweet with undertones of maturity and seriousness, this is a lovely romance to bring alive the magic of Christmas. Unlike some Christmas romances, this story doesn’t descend into schmaltziness with mawkish grand gestures. It retains the integrity of story with the genuine emotions of two adults in their fifties finding a second chance at friendship and love.

She is a dedicated social worker in Oakland, CA. She loves working with patients and enabling the people she comes in contact with find solutions to better lives for themselves. On a whim, her daughter pushes her to take a break from all her hard work to travel with her to England. He is the first black private secretary to the Queen, a position he is proud of and has worked hard to achieve and maintain. But lately, he has found himself feeling slightly bored and restless despite the unceasing work, which he enjoys. His sister and nephew fill his need for family, but there is still a void in him that he is unsure how to fill.

And then he lays eyes on her at Sandringham and he finds himself instantly charmed. She carries herself with a refreshing forthrightness, a strong joyful sense of self, and an easy acceptance of those around her. She, in turn, is fascinated with this man with kind eyes and instant smiles, who goes out of his way to be considerate to everyone he meets and is so solicitous of her. My review is here.

The Night of the Scoundrel by Kelly Bowen
Category: Regency Romance
Comments: This is the last—and the best in my opinion—story in Bowen’s Devils of Dover series. It tells the story of the mysterious, almost menacing, all-knowing, overarching figure of King and the woman who is perfect for him. There is nothing of the underbelly of society that he hasn’t had his ruthless hands in. And yet the highest of the nobility flock to his mansion whenever he has an exclusive auction of prized objects pried from unwilling or questionable sources. King holds all the power in his dealings with these unscrupulous, covetous people.

And yet, he is powerless in his fascination of the sight he witnesses in a darkening alley one evening: a black-clad angel whose twin blades are extensions of her arms routing three assailants with great precision, skill and lack of effort. When he spies that same woman the same night in his study robbing him of a priceless sapphire, his fascination turns into unwilling attraction. The need to decipher her become all-consuming. Madness! Bowen writes with such precision of expression and emotion. And also versatility. Her words fit the story she tells, and I love her voice and style. My review is here.

Open House by Ruby Lang
Category: Contemporary Romance
Comments: The two protagonists in this story approach each other from opposite sides of an illegal community garden in Harlem—she is the real estate agent tasked with selling the land, and he is the organizer of the garden. This book is all about “community”—finding your own, creating your own, and appreciating what you have.

It was interesting to see how the protagonists fit into their families and how that has informs on what they think of themselves. It was also interesting to see how differently each perceives the other and how they grow in confidence from this new look at themselves. This is the essence of romance to me: A person growing into their better self because someone sees them as worth much more than they’d previously thought.

He sees her as dedicated and capable of taking on a task and finishing it. She thinks she’s a screw-up because she has flitted from career to career. She sees him as a passionate supporter of the garden and the old ladies who work in there—they are his friends; they trust him; and their passion has become his passion. He, on the other hand, sees himself as a footloose, fancy-free person with no roots and no cares. Seeing themselves from the other’s lens is the making of them. My review is here.

Sweet Adventure by Mary Burchell
Category: Vintage Contemporary Romance
Comments: I gave this an "A" for being charming and engrossing with a busy plot and a wonderfully complex heroine. While Burchell's heroines always have agency and active roles, this is the first book where the heroine dominates the story completely with her competence, common sense, and compassion.

The story is a mystery. The heroine is on her first motoring trip when she finds herself in a cottage with a dead woman and her young daughter. She immediately takes the girl to the police to report the death, and there she runs into the girl's uncle (the hero) who is on the lookout for his sister. The girl and the heroine form an instant bond, and so at the urging of the uncle, she goes to stay with their family and look after the girl for a few days. In the meantime, there's a villainous father, a younger uncle who's run up against the law, a dominating matriarch, and fine country estate. And of course, our smart, independent heroine and the dead woman. It all ties up into a fun book.

Gilded Cage by KJ Charles
Category: Victorian Romance
Comments: It is no exaggeration on my part to say that Charles pens near-perfect historical romances. This is a story of a childhood romance turning sour through betrayals, lies and threats. But when the protagonists meet up seventeen years later (in 1895), they discover the wrongs done unto them, and instead of being mired in bitterness, they choose to have faith in their original positive assessments of each other and embark on a second-chance romance. Much water has passed under the bridge since their youth, filled with regrets, missed opportunities, and life-altering experiences, and thus Gilded Cage is a story of great courage on part of the protagonists to choose to trust once again.

Charles has her characters walk a careful line between what is acceptable criminality and what is out-n-out villainy. As a reader, I had to constantly hush up my sense of right and wrong and consider each situation from the characters' moral framework, which is of their time, their personalities, and their backgrounds. This is where Charles truly shines as a writer -- this grappling of morals and ethics is a commentary on her historical research and philosophical thought.

Any Old Diamonds (review here) and Gilded Cage (review here) are part of the Lilywhite Boys series.

How to Read a Book by Kwame Alexander, illustrated by Melissa Sweet
Category: Children's Picture Book
Comments: My mind just exploded when I turned the pages of this book. The artwork is outstanding and damaging to your eyeballs: clashing loud colors, patterned letters all over the place, pull-outs and fold-outs, multidimensional art, and so on. It's like an illustrator went batshit crazy on the page, but the resulting book is as eye-catching as it is eye-popping (and hard to read).

However, I persisted in deciphering the words since I will read anything that Kwame Alexander writes, and the effort was rewarding. Alexander takes us into an immersive experience about reading a book. First, find a tree—a black Tupelo or a Dawn Redwood will do—and plant yourself. He then likens opening the book to be akin to peeling the skin of a clementine. He carries the metaphor further when he instructs kids to dig their thumbs at the bottom of each juicy section and pop the words out. Page by rustling page. One of his last instructions is to get cozy between the covers and allow your fingers to wonder as they wander. The words are gentle and lovely. The art is what it is. They don't go together, in my opinion; I really wonder what Alexander thought of it.

When Aidan Became a Brother by Kyle Lukoff, illustrated by Kaylani Juanita
Category: Children's Picture Book
Comments: This is a beautiful book that tells the story of Aidan who is transgender. Lukoff is also transgender and that makes him tell Aidan's journey with sensitivity, awareness, and empathy. Aidan was born a girl, but he knows that he is meant to be a boy. He rejects all his parents' girl-trappings: dolls, pink, lacy, braids, dresses, and on and on. Luckily for Aidan, they really listen when he tells them how he feels and who he really is. I loved Aidan's parents for the love and understanding they show and how they allow their child to lead in determining his life and be just a happy kid. So when his mom is going to have a baby, he tells everyone how excited he is to be a big brother, and he always makes it a point to not let others pre-decide who the baby should be, gender or otherwise. I was glad to see that Juanita depicted Aidan as biracial—making this book an #OwnVoices book for both the writer and illustrator. However, the artwork is uninspiring and does not match the intensity of Lukoff's prose.

My Papi has a Motorcycle by Isabel Quintero, illustrated by Zeke Peña
Category: Children's Picture Book
Comments: I always read author's notes first in every book I take up, and they are always rewarding and frame the book really well. This one is stellar. Quintero says the book is the story of her father and of Corona, California. This is a book where the illustrator was able to read the writer's heart and mind and pull out details from her childhood and accurately depict them. Unlike the above two books, the words and pictures are a perfect match, and it really makes this story sing. The protagonist's father is a carpenter and builds homes. But no matter how tired he is when he comes home, he always makes time to take his daughter for a spin on his motorcycle. He is a man of few words and emotions, but it is how he behaves with his daughter shows her how much she is loved. They go on familiar roads in town where she gets to visit all the places she usually goes with her Mamí, now with her Papi, and she sees the world anew.

Wednesday, December 18, 2019

Best Romance Books of 2019

My detailed list of best romance books of 2019 is published on Frolic Media. Here are the titles in alphabetical order:

—American Dreamer by Adriana Herrera
—Any Old Diamonds by K.J. Charles
—Bringing Down the Duke by Evie Dunmore
—Can’t Escape Love by Alyssa Cole
—Desire Lines by Elizabeth Kingston
—Kiss and Cry by Mina V. Esguerra
—Man vs. Durian by Jackie Lau
—Miss Dominguez’s Christmas Kiss and Other Stories by Lydia San Andres
—The Austen Playbook by Lucy Parker
—The Awakening of Miss Henley by Julia Justiss
—The Bride Test by Helen Hoang
—The Lady’s Guide to Celestial Mechanics by Olivia Waite
—The Madness of Miss Grey by Julia Bennet
—There’s Something about Sweetie by Sandhya Menon
—Work for It by Talia Hibbert