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

Sunday, December 1, 2019

My November Reading

You can chart my emotional tenor from the books I read. This month was a hard month, and among other books, I read traditional Regencies and vintage contemporaries, which included top faves: Mary Burchell, Mary Balogh, and Joan Smith.

There were a few days in November that were awash in the Sarah Dessen kerfuffle. If you are unaware of it, you can find more information: here, here, and here. In short: a college student from a small college in a small town criticized millionaire author Sarah Dessen's work. When Dessen found out about it, she ranted about it on Twitter to her huge platform, who dug out the small newspaper and the student's name and harassed her and heaped abuse on her. Among the verbal abusers were big-name authors: Jennifer Weiner, Jodi Picoult, N.K. Jemisin, Meg Cabot, Angie Thomas, Celeste Ng, and Roxanne Gay among others. Instead of merely voicing support of Dessen's feelings and Dessen's work, these people harassed the student. When big media outlets like WaPo and Slate came out against them, they backed down and issued non-apologies. I was particularly disappointed in Roxanne Gay and N.K. Jemisin and Dessen, herself—she replied positively to abusive tweets.

My first reaction was, "I am never going to read a Sarah Dessen novel." Well, the joke's on me. I have her The Rest of the Story sitting on my Kindle for review. Do I refuse to read and review it? In that case, you would be totally justified in accusing me of being a hypocrite. Only last month, I was out there on my soapbox about giving fictional characters and real people second chances. What Dessen did was reprehensible, but just perhaps, she has learned from all the backlash because her apology was well-done. I will give her another chance and read her book. I will, however, not be giving Jemisin or Roxanne Gay another chance, because they have done this "jumping on persecuting bandwagons" before and when faced with the backlash this time, they were unrepentant.

So You Want to Talk About Race by Ijeoma Oluo
Category: Nonfiction
Comments: Our school has taken DEI very seriously this year. It is part of their strategic plan and they have incorporated it into their curriculum, admissions, faculty and staff hiring, and parent education. As part of their efforts, they are doing a community read of Oluo's book. This is going to be an ongoing read for me for the next couple of months. We've already had one group discussion, and we have another discussion coming up in January followed by Oluo's visit. My main interest in this month's reading was the chapter on "intersectionality." I have seen that word around social media for a few months now, but Oluo's explanation of it puts into context the issues facing people with multiple marginalizations. For that chapter alone, I would recommend the book. I will comment on this book further later this month. At our discussion in November, I was disappointed that among 25 people, almost all were women and all but three were Caucasian women. This constrained the discussion in ways that were sub-optimal to the issues the book brings up. I hope we have a more diverse group in January for a more robust discussion.

Attitudes of Gratitude: How to Give and Receive Joy Every Day of Your Life by M.J. Ryan
Category: Nonfiction
Comments: I borrowed this book from my parents when I visited back in February. It is only now that I cracked it open to read. Many years ago, I was advised by a wise human being that I should develop an attitude of gratitude. Sorrowfully, he passed away before he could explain what he meant in detail. And now, serendipitously, this book has fallen in my lap that tries to explain what is gratitude, the gifts of gratitude, the attitudes, and finally, the practices of gratitude answering the question: How should I do it to bring it into my life? The book is full of platitudes and simplistic solutions, but it is the first I have read that doesn't deal merely with esoteric ideas, but rather delineates concrete implemental steps. Tell me what to do, and I will try to do it, and let the effects be what they are purported to be. This is a complete departure from how many people approach philosophical or spiritual ideas, but since I have struggled with this for a while, I am going to start with these building blocks, which will later allow me to tackle more Big Idea approaches.

Walking by Henry David Thoreau
Category: Nonfiction
Comments: Thanks to Maria Popova of Brain Pickings and World Enough & Time: On Creativity and Slowing Down by Christian McEwen, I discovered this book. The printed book was converted to digital by a community of volunteers and self-pubbed on AMZ for free in 2012. It felt like it was a small enough book that I would be able to easily read it on the Kindle, but it hasn't proved to be the case. I need a print book where I can linger on the page, underline things, write marginalia, and put in post-it notes. So once the physical book arrives, I'll re-read it. As a child, I lived in a nature preserve, and went on long walks every evening by myself. There was always so much to see, so much to think about, and I returned refreshed and soothed from the bullying I otherwise faced in my neighborhood. Over the decades, I have forgotten how wonderful walking can be, and this book reminds me of its wonders. Granted, I don't have hours like Thoreau did or easy access to forest trails like Thoreau did—somehow driving somewhere to walk seems to defeat the purpose. So this month, I plan to walk out of my door and in my neighborhood. I will see what comes out of a few circles around. We rarely have walkers or joggers, so it wouldn't be a case of constantly running across chatty neighbors.

The Carrying by Ada Limón
Category: Poetry
Comments: It was a case of curious coincidences. I found two of Limón's poems one week that really spoke to me, and then in my discussion of them on Twitter, I discovered a third. Here it is: "Instructions on Not Giving Up" from the perspective of the cherry blossom trees. Nature never ever gives up—all that is sorrowful, it seems to say, passes with hope just around the corner. That is how I view the start of the new year and the beginning of longer days—Hope is such a sweet word and such a comfort to me.

Patient, plodding, a green skin
growing over whatever winter did to us, a return
to the strange idea of continuous living despite
the mess of us, the hurt, the empty. Fine then,
I'll take it, the tree seems to say; a new slick leaf
unfurling like a fist, I'll take it all.

A Match Made for Thanksgiving by Jackie Lau
Category: Contemporary Romance
Comments: A Jackie Lau book always makes me smile. Her writing, pacing, and characters are so lively and warm and fun that her books are unputdownable. They also leave you hungry for all the foods mentioned—wouldn’t it be fun to go food adventuring with Lau, you wonder. Written for the Canadian Thanksgiving holiday, this first book of the Holidays with the Wongs series is a tender romp. I enjoyed a look into the first- and second-generation Chinese-Canadian immigrant families whom Lau showcases in her story. She strikes just the right note with the complexity of their heritages and cultural and social attitudes. In her protagonists, Lau has created giving, thoughtful individuals, who are open to stepping outside their comfort zones into new experiences that they never imagined before they would like to try. Lau is a prolific writer, and I am always looking forward to her next story. My review is here.

Work for It by Talia Hibbert
Category: Contemporary Romance
Comments: Olu Keynes is a sharp-tongued man who has been numbed emotionally since childhood due to continual trauma by his abusive father and ex. He’s often overcome by self-loathing and anxiety before disappearing into an icy deadened state. Griff Everett thinks he is big and ugly and the locals treat him like a pariah, so he has become a loner. Griff and Olu meet at Fernley Farms, where their job is to work with plants. Those who love the BBC series Cranford will love Hibbert's small English village atmosphere, with its gossipy neighbors, small-minded, supercilious villagers, and strict social class. Griff and Olu have serious emotional scars from their tough lives, but there is a thread of hopefulness that runs in their lives that allows them to reach out to each other. Hibbert is one author whose work just keeps on getting better—however, her gritty books are not for everyone.

Tell Me My Fortune by Mary Burchell
Pay Me Tomorrow by Mary Burchell
Category: Vintage Contemporary Romance
Comments: These two books are identical in their basic plotline, but overall, they are very different stories. This is because their protagonists are such different people, in terms of personalities, motivations, backgrounds, and values. In writing these two books, Burchell has thumbed her nose at critics who say romance novels are formulaic and repetitive. It takes a master craftsman to provide bare plot guidelines and then allow her characters to live their lives and own their story.

The premise is that the heroine's family is in expectation that a near relative will die and leave them a sum of money. All their life decisions are in abeyance until that happy event. Unfortunately, they discover that the money has been left elsewhere. What are the families to do? Yes, the heroes are rich and the impoverished heroines are interested in them because they are rich. How mercenary, you think. Well, of course. But these gold-diggers redeem themselves to their own, their heroes', and our satisfaction. The best part of Burchell's characterization are mature people who believe in taking bad news on the chin, sitting with the distress, avoiding knee-jerk reactions, and above all, talking it out with each other.

I liked Pay Me Tomorrow a smidge over the other one, because of the hero. He has been in love with the heroine for months before she even really "sees" him. And he so vulnerable that he is willing to be taken advantage of for his money if only he can have her in his life. So the end of the book is just wonderful, where she shows him how much she values him and how that affects him, and the effect on her when she realizes how very much he loves her. That power differential between them may never fully equalize, but she is now aware of her power over him and is at pains to show him that she treasures him.

Just a Nice Girl by Mary Burchell
Category: Vintage Contemporary Romance
Comments: For a young woman, who is often overlooked and known only as a "nice girl" with no accomplishments, being courted by two handsome, competitive, well-established men is quite the ego boost. This was a forgettable novel, in my opinion, especially following the above two books. It is competently, and at times, superbly written, but the characterization is patriarchal and colorless—Burchell's heart just wasn't in it.

Lady with a Black Umbrella by Mary Balogh
Category: Traditional Regency Romance
Comments: I loved this book so much, I bought it in print as well. As always, when I love a book to pieces, I find it difficult to articulate exactly why I loved it so much. It is laugh-out-loud funny with complex characters. The hero is quite hapless but also masterful and capable is some situations. The heroine is quite managing and yet wants a future husband who she will not be able to dominate. What a delightful combination, isn't it, to have two such opposing characteristics in the same person?

Their meet-cute happens when she descends in an avenging fury with a black umbrella to route three thugs who are beating up the hero. The hero tenders suitable thanks, and since he has had his purse stolen, he goes on his way while promising the innkeeper that he will send the requisite blunt. Well, she decides to do him a good turn and pays his shot, his one-night-stand, and his gambling partner. What stays in a small town inn, does not stay in that small town inn, but gets spread all over London. While she is congratulating herself on her largesse, he is drowning in humiliation and ridicule. He is very much a proper young man who is conscious of what is due to his consequence; she is a free spirit, happy and content with life. What they both have in common is that they like getting their own way.

Bath Scandal by Joan Smith
Category: Traditional Regency Romance
Comments: This was another book full of rollicking good humor; not as funny as the one above, but rife with Smith's characteristic humor without descending to farce. The hero's fiancée is a managing woman who has battened on to him and is battering all his freedoms. On her insistence, he even sends away his teen step-sister to someone he had coincidentally met at her wedding and to whom he had been attracted. The widowed heroine soon realizes that she's been taken for a ride and been lumped with bringing a hoyden into fashion without the leavening benefit of having the hero to husband. Despite it all, she finds herself liking the girl and succeeds in her task. In the mean time, the hero has an attack of conscience and descends on Bath to check on the heroine, and thus they meet. He is a rigid, proper sort of gentleman, set in his ways. She is an adventurous, chic woman with her circle of admirers. He is aghast at her unseemliness; she rolls her eyes at his starchiness. It is inevitable that a growing attraction springs up between them, only to be bruised with the advent of the jealous fiancée.

Friday, November 1, 2019

My October Reading

I started off this month in fine reading fettle, but then life went south and so did my reading.

His Defiant Princess by Nana Prah
Category: Contemporary Romance
Comments: If you’re a fan of Alyssa Cole’s The Reluctant Royals series, you will enjoy this story. Published by Love Africa Press that celebrates all things African in romantic fiction, Prah’s novel follows the age-old questions of lovers separated by an ocean: Who should give up their established life to move? Are friends and family and career more important than the love of your life? How to sacrifice one for the other? Since these are difficult questions that people struggle with in real life, so it was interesting to see how Prah has her fictional characters deal with it. Now imagine, she is a princess of a fictional African country and he is a dentist from Vermont. What does their future hold for them? Contemplation of marriage between the protagonists is fraught with political maneuvering and emotional manipulation by the people around them and between themselves. It does not automatically follow that he should give up his life because his social capital is perceived as much lower than hers—I really liked that Prah did not take this shortcut to solve their dilemma. My review is here.

The Write Escape by Charish Reid
Category: Contemporary Romance
Comments: This is a charming vacation story set in a small village in Ireland far removed from all the mod-cons of big city life. Reid takes two protagonists who are at a low point in their lives and puts them together in a small place where they cannot but be in each other’s space to see what would happen. They’re mature people in their thirties who have dealt with ups and downs in life, but they still have things they need to learn and to work on. I liked that Reid doesn’t have her characters too set in their ways and not willing to make concessions to another person. They're perspicacious and forthright, so unpleasant views get aired and dealt with. I found it charming how she supports his scholarly work in African American history, her history, while he supports her romance novel writing by reading romance novels, a genre he had never thought he would like as a professor of literature with a capital 'L.' My review is here.

The Awakening of Miss Henley by Julia Justiss
Category: Regency Romance
Comments: I am so delighted to have found a Traditional Regency written in 2019. Justiss is a marvelous writer and has penned a tight plot with historically accurate details and courageous characters. It's a story of warmth and stalwart seizing of their futures by the horns. They both start out insecure and uncertain where life is going to take them, but through hard work and belief in each other, they emerge stronger in themselves and thus stronger together.

She is saddled with the moniker Homely, he with Incomparable. She's a diehard member of the reform movement; he's a charming wastrel. She is determined not to wed a rake and deal with infidelity; he thinks he is incapable of fidelity. Neither wants to marry. However, the only enlivening aspect of their social evenings is the acerbic comments and astute observations of society and each other they make in each other's company in ballrooms across London. Jovial banter and laughter punctuate their conversation. Their interest in each other beyond friendship creeps up on them by degrees—so slowly in fact that they are taken unawares. My review is here.

The Lord's Inconvenient Vow by Lara Temple
Category: Regency Romance
Comments: Who hasn't read one of the most beloved speeches in romance novels from As You Desire by Connie Brockway? The hero says to the heroine with anguish and passion: "You are my country. My Egypt. My hot, harrowing desert and my cool, verdant Nile, infinitely lovely and unfathomable and sustaining."

This is the same heart-wrenching emotion I kept feeling from the protagonists as I read The Lord's Inconvenient Vow. Ever since their childhood in Egypt, they have been in each other's company, she plaguing and teasing him, he scolding and berating her. But under their levity, ran a current of serious intent, awareness and care. They trusted each other. They had each other's back. They understood each other like no one else could. But then they part ways to marry other people.

When they meet again in Egypt—the place where all their good memories are etched on their hearts—eight years later, they realize that time has not banished their regard for each other. They discover that they are—still—uncomprehendingly attracted to each other. Both are now widowed and searching for a place to put down roots, to build a family, to have that one person in their life who they trust completely, who makes their soul sing.

The setting is superbly done. You get a good sense of the country and culture of Egypt at the time of British Imperialism in the Regency era. I liked that Temple shows her English characters to be respectful of and have great affinity for the people, culture, religion, language, lands and treasures. Egypt was home to them, where they were most themselves, and, yet, they trod there lightly, ever cognizant that they were guests. This is such a contrast to reality that it is notable how Temple handles it. My review is here.

The Royal Treatment by Melanie Summers
Category: Contemporary Romance
Comments: Reader, I DNF'd it. 1706 reviews on Amazon with an average of 4.5 stars. I thought this book would be a slam-dunk. People said it was very funny, and I was in the mood for humor. Unfortunately, the humor is rather mean-spirited. It makes fun of people and is homophobic, misogynist, and laughs at childbirth. I laughed exactly once, but kept hoping it would improve, till I finally gave up at 20%. Definitely not for me.

The premise is delicious: Passionate blogger hates the royalty and regularly lampoons them in her blog. Prince is concerned that the popularity of royalty is massively slipping in the polls. So what better idea than to invite his worst critic to the palace to charm her into writing flattering pieces about him, in particular, and royalty, at large?

There's humor that works for me; most doesn't. What works? Act Like It by Lucy Parker. The Hampshire Hoyden by Michelle Martin. Red, White & Royal Blue by Casey McQuiston.

The Undefeated by Kwame Alexander, illustrated by Kadir Nelson
Category: Children's Picture Poetry
Comments: Alexander wrote this poem in 2008 for his newly-born daughter so she could understand how an African American became president of the United States by showing her the facts of American history that are always overlooked. His poem addresses the accomplishments of black Americans. In his notes, he mentions the greats and the well-known, such as Jesse Owens, Zora Neale Hurston, Langston Hughes, John Lewis, Trayvon Martin, Muhammad Ali, Serena Williams, Thelonious Monk, Ella Fitzgerald, and so many others. He also talks about the Civil Rights Movement and the Transatlantic Slave Trade. His constant message is that "Black. Lives. Matter. Because we are Americans. Because we are human beings." He quotes Maya Angelou: "We may encounter many defeats, but we must not be defeated. I did get knocked down flat in front of the whole world, and I rose."

Imagine by Juan Felipe Herrera, illustrated by Lauren Castillo
Category: Children's Picture Memoir Poetry
Comments: Herrera was a child of migrant workers from Latin America. When he was young, he helped his parents at their various jobs, but every time he settled in and made friends, he had to uproot his life and move on. Those early childhood lessons remained with him as he explores in this poem: Who might he be? Imagine... Herrera finally became an American and went on to become Poet Laureate of USA, and read aloud his poetry on the steps of the Library of Congress.

"If I gathered
many words and many more songs
with both of my hands
and let them fly
over my mesa
and turned them into a book
of poems,

Imagine what you could do"