Sunday, September 1, 2019


My August Reading


I have always maintained that the real edgy social fiction is happening in children's books. I have been reviewing children's picture books for a few years now, and not only do they not shy away from difficult topics, they approach them honestly and in human terms that little children can understand and to which they can also relate. Books for the young are written so that even if the subject material may be above their heads, the emotions are accessible, because they feature young children and animals, and children can identify with them. Books dealing with social issues build empathy and acceptance, and that is the focus of the writers. So I was very pleased to see a mid-grade book addressing a social issue—immigration—through the feelings of a ten-year-old girl. This was written during the Obama years, so it does not deal with the horrors of today.

Inside Out & Back Again by Thanhha Lai
Category: Children's Mid-Grade
Comments: Winner of the National Book Award and a Newberry Honor Book, Inside Out & Back Again is a story in verse. Like Jacqueline Woodson's Brown Girl Dreaming (which I reviewed HERE in 2015), the paucity of words and the silence of white space makes the story all the more powerful. Like the Woodson, this has got to be one of the most gorgeous books I have ever read. And I mean beauty—beauty of words, beauty of thought, beauty of emotions, beauty of relationships, beauty of images—and I luxuriated in it. It is billed as a middle-grade book, but it is a book for all ages with everyone taking something different away from it.

The story follows the author's experience of a refugee, fleeing Vietnam after the Fall of Saigon and immigrating to America. The little girl in this book chronicles her year of change so movingly. It has its funny moments, tears-crowded-in-the-throat moments, and the ordinary made extraordinary because of the girl's newness to those experiences. For a child only knowing life in Vietnam, the American way of life is scary, sorrowful, overwhelming, and exhilarating all at once. s

Man vs. Durian by Jackie Lau
Category: Contemporary Romance
Comments: I love Jackie Lau's books—her sense of humor really tickles my fancy. Her characters are always spunky, funny, and sweet with their immigrant, Asian, and Canadian cultures all rolled in together.

“You are much better than a durian” is the highest compliment she can pay him.
“You are like a durian. Because you’re spiky on the outside and mushy on the inside and utterly delicious” is the highest compliment he can pay her.

Durian, you ask? Yes, I am talking here about that spiky fruit that smells extremely strongly of natural gas, rotten onion, and vomit. And from this improbable aphrodisiac, Jackie Lau has built a sweet romantic tale in Man vs. Durian.

Their meet-cute happens over—you guessed it—durian, when she spills the odorous ice cream all over his shirt. He is appropriately horrified, and yanks his shirt off, even as he admires her and is amused by her. Even though, she, too, admires his body, she sees not boyfriend material in him, but fake boyfriend material to appease her demanding mother. My review is here.

Marry in Secret by Anne Gracie
Category: Regency Romance
Comments: [CW: miscarriage / loss of a child]

I have been hooked by Anne Gracie's writing ever since I read The Gallant Waif all those years ago. I haven't always followed all her books, but whenever I dip in and out, I find something I like. Marry in Secret is how a couple formerly in love but separated by supposed death face the fact that they still are married and have to go on with their lives. Should they take a leap of faith and work towards making their marriage a success or should they give up and seek an annulment? They have changed irrevocably in the intervening years, can they (should they?) overcome that?

What I liked best about this story is the heroine's positivity and belief in the marriage they had made. She does not take her vows lightly. She made them in good faith and in love, and while the hero and herself have both changed significantly and irrevocably, she is willing to believe that they can seek new common ground and grow together through patience and understanding. Despite being so young, they had both been able to see below the superficial surface of each other to the real person beneath. She is of firm belief that such a love does not die and can grow back stronger than before through the care and deliberate thought of two mature people. She is firmly convinced of this and is willing to work hard to save her marriage. She simply has to persuade him to rise above his despondency to fight for them also.

I am fascinated by how two people contract marriage and how they make it work, and this is a wonderful look at the dedication it takes to make a marriage work and that, “I Love You” is just the beginning. My review is here.

Prep & Prejudice by Miren B. Flores
Category: Contemporary Romance
Comments: Set in Manila and a decadent island in the Philippines, this is a story of a clash between vastly different classes. (While Flores uses an existing place, San Enrique, I wasn't sure which of the two actual San Enrique places she means, or if it is a wholly made up place of that name.)

The heroine has always felt herself to be on the fringes of the über rich. Her mother closely works for one of the monied classes, and as a result the heroine comes in contact with many of the rich kids. She does make a close friend among one of the girls, but she never truly fits in and carries a huge chip on her shoulder about their decadence and breezy self-confidence. In addition, despite her success in her adulthood, she is dogged by low self-esteem.

The hero was obnoxious to her in their teen years, so the switch between that (detailed thoroughly in flashback chapters) and their attraction to and sleeping with each other when they meet many years later is sudden to say the least and requires a leap of faith that wasn't quite plausible.

I can understand the feeling of inadequacy and resentment that the heroine grew up with, but even as she is drawn into a relationship with the wealthy hero, she cannot shake it off. She now suffers from Imposter Syndrome and is only waiting for the shoe to drop; as a result, she quickly jumps to the wrong conclusion when a certain something happens and runs away. By this time, I was tired of her and couldn't figure out why the guy was putting up with being put down constantly by her for something he could not control: his inherited wealth.

Red, White & Royal Blue by Casey McQuiston
Category: Contemporary Romance
Comments: This is a romance between two princes: one, a member of the British royal family, and the other, the son of the POTUS. They move in the same widely influential monied circles, but in reality, they hate each other's guts. They cause an international situation when they get into a bit of a tug-of-war and fall into the $75k cake at the royal prince's brother's wedding. Oops! Then starts the publicity blitz to showcase their true bromance...which eventually leads to a true romance. But the two are separated by a large pond. How is their romance to flourish?

People have either loved this book or dismissed it—I lie with the former group. This was a fun romp of a rom-com, not to be taken seriously in the least, especially when real politicians show up in ignominious and inventive ways or characters have names of real people but behave vastly differently. This is not a historical or a true contemporary romance where real people act like real people. I mean, the premise is utterly fanciful. For example, the fact that a college student has wide access to senators and representatives in Congress and is able to see political trends and suss out secrets that loads of staffers and aides haven't while attending college is definitely worthy of a hard eye-roll. But that is precisely the charm of this book. You let go off all preconceived notions of how such a story exists and unfolds and go with the flow.

How to Love a Duke in Ten Days by Kerrigan Byrne
Category: Victorian Romance
Comments: [CW: rape on page, PTSD from rape, murder]

She is brutally raped at her finishing school in Switzerland. Despite her horrific experience, she retains enough presence of mind to kill her rapist to prevent further depredations and with the help of friends buries him. By dint of superhuman effort, she rises above her trauma to get a doctorate—a rare achievement in Victorian England—and successfully travels to excavation sites at far reaches of the globe. The hero likewise has a love of travel, but he has also suffered trauma. On the surface, these two have a lot to deal with, and you would think they would rub each other raw. But in fact, they are both able to see the other person and their difficulties with compassion. I admired that about these two very much.

The love scenes in the book are sensitively done. The author does not magically sweep away the heroine's trauma through one introduction to the magic wang. Their progress in the intimacy department is a case of two steps forward, one step back, despite both of them wanting it very much. This story is one of hope, an affirmation that no matter the circumstances of your life, happiness is within reach. The book has a compelling mystery as well. The reveal at the end of the book is very satisfying with an excellent build up. My review is here.

Bringing Down a Duke by Evie Dunmore
Category: Victorian Romance
Comments: This is a book worth savoring—it is going to feature on my Best Books of the Year list. I loved it for its bright and intelligent observations, nuanced emotions, smart pacing, and engaging writing.

Dunmore has built an unforgettable protagonist in the duke. He reminded me again and again of Jo Beverley's Marquess of Rothgar in his intelligence, integrity, self-confidence, sense of self-worth, power over people around him including royalty, and quiet vulnerability beneath the seemingly unbreakable armor of his personality. And she is the perfect foil for such a man with her intelligence, confidence, and self-esteem that successfully hide her own vulnerabilities. I enjoy books where the protagonists have deep, abiding interests and passions other than spending time in each other's company. His involvement in political maneuvering and Annabelle's immutable belief in women's rights makes them complex, interesting people.

But alas, in Victorian England, class did play a big role in how society worked. He cannot consign his politics, his life's work, and his hereditary title to the flames in order to marry a nobody. He desperately wants to; she desperately wants him to. How Dunmore makes the HEA happen is masterful. My review is here.

A Wicked Kind of Husband by Mia Vincy
Category: Regency (?) Romance
Comments: I am an outlier with this story. It featured on many Best Books list last year, but I could barely finish it.

The beast in this Beauty and the Beast story is truly beastly towards the heroine. I can understand someone having rough manners because they had to scramble to survive and had a difficult childhood. But a lack of courtesy isn't the only thing that turned me off him—rather, it is how hurtful and selfish he is to her even as he perceives the hurt he is causing and how she takes it and puts a smile on it. His conscience does not smite him for long or severely enough because his own grievance and loss in the past are more relevant—her loss, her loneliness, her desperate straits do not elicit enough sympathy. I could not forgive him for it, and did not buy his redemption in the end. Even though she has continually forgiven him all through the book and found him amusing and was always kind to him despite his rejection of and unkindness towards her, I did not buy their HEA. Not a whit. She gave, he took, for most of the book.

The only good thing about this book is its occasional flashes of clever humor, and I like clever humor, never the silly sallies that are the usual fare of fluffy books. To be sure, this is not a fluffy book.

For Ever & Ever by Mary Burchell
Category: Vintage Contemporary Romance
Comments: The heroine, a former nurse, is a secretary of the secretary of a great poobah, who gets selected to accompany the poobah's daughter on a trip to Australia. The purpose is to get the girl away from a suitor, she is in love with and he is in disfavor of. So as a companion to the rich girl, our heroine of modest means gets to experience of modest means. The hero is the senior surgeon on board the ship, and unfortunately, for our heroine, the very man her charge was supposed to keep away from is the assistant surgeon. Thus she spends most of her journey in anxiety over her the girl's future with this unprincipled wastrel.

"Never before had she attempted to measure against someone unscrupulous and quick-witted." And despite it, and her intense dislike of scenes, she stands her ground because of her deep desire to help the girl in her charge. She was willing to have her character ripped into shreds to prevent that girl from having her life ripped into shreds. I really like how Burchell has her heroines step up with courage in times of stress, and do it gracefully and carefully.

Like last month's Burchell book, The Journey Together, this book is an examination on how travel changes a person. Little by little, we see the heroine growing up and her outlook on life broadening. Eventually, she starts to wonder how she will fit back into her old life, her job, her family. While she has moved forward and away from it all, those things have stayed the same. Along with this change of outlook, has come independence and assertiveness.

Interesting look at depression with the knowledge of science of Burchell's time. According to Burchell, having a sense of purpose and knowing that someone cares what happens to them is one of the best ways to lift someone out of melancholy. (Clearly, this is for borderline depression, not major, clinical depression.)

The Girl in the Blue Dress by Mary Burchell
Category: Vintage Contemporary Romance
Comments: The premise is lovely. The hero has lived with the portrait of a young girl for many years, and she brings him joy and peace and challenges him in his day-to-day living. He's gotten used to talking to her. I love how Burchell has the fine arts provide solace and excitement to her protagonists in her various books. So when the hero meets the real-life, grown-up girl, our heroine, he is charmed by her. But he is engaged elsewhere, and wishes to continue with that engagement and marry that girl. At no point does he transfer his affections to the heroine, who, in the meantime, gets engaged to someone else. Though she really likes the hero, at no point, does she fall in love with him; in fact, she had been in love with her fiancé for years and wants to marry him.

The big issue with the book is pacing—I know for a Burchell, this is rare. But this book really needed to be a longer book in order to make the end work. The story arc is much bigger than the 180+ pages assigned to categories of that time. As a result, at page 132, she finds out that Franklin's engagement was broken off by his fiancée; at page 151, she is still welcoming Geoffrey's kisses and is reassured of his love; by page 152, she has acknowledged to herself and Geoffrey that he is really in love with someone else and she is heartbroken; and by page 185, she and Franklin are saying their I-Love-Yous to each other.

There needed to be room in the book for the hero and heroine's romantic arc. The earlier part should have been sped up, the first engagements to the "wrong" people needed to have been broken off sooner, and the building awareness among these two needed to have be shown sooner and stronger in order to fit in the 180+ pages. This is so totally not like Burchell that it was a disappointment. This is not to say that the characters themselves are not interesting or the plot isn't well done, it's just that the structure of the story needed to be different.

The Promise of Happiness by Betty Neels
Category: Vintage Contemporary Romance
Comments: Fellow Neels' fan, Barb in Maryland, highly recommended this book, and it is wonderful! The heroine is really downtrodden: She's running for her life from her cruel relations in pouring rain and cold, when the doctor hero stops to give her ride. A trained nurse reduced to backbreaking housework not of her own choosing—that is what she'd been reduced to. But he gives her a new start in life, not through charity which would've been oppressive, but by instilling pride in herself by employing her to do what she enjoys doing and is good at: nursing. He calls her a "thin mouse," and in the beginning, that is true of her physical self from starvation and of her mental self from the abuse. But as the story moves on, you see her gaining weight as a metaphor for gaining an appreciation for how she looks, and speaking up with authority as a metaphor for being grounded in herself, her self-worth, and her confidence. As with the Burchell above, competence and a sense of purpose are what turn her away from despondency in life into fully participating in life.

Read this wonderful review to know all things about the book. One excellent comment they make, which is why I like this Neels heroine very much, is: "She may be thin and small but when she fell in love she didn't lose her backbone." Huzzahs! Some Neels heroines do tend to be doormats when the hero's influence grows in their life. Not this heroine! Huzzahs! And it was great to see the arrogant doctor be vulnerable and unsure. This is a rare Neels hero who isn't completely in charge with an amused smile all the time. He suffers doubts, unrequited love, jealousy, frustration—in short, he is normal. Huzzahs!

A side note the above review also makes is that Neels always describes the food in her books in great detail. Her characters tend to eat plenty of delicious meals, which she describes in full. And drink gallons of coffee and tea. A pot of tea before sleeping. Cup of coffee before bed. Egads!

One Night for Seduction by Erica Ridley
Category: Regency Romance
Comments: This is a story of a wallflower bringing a duke to heel. Ridley has spun the "matchmaker falling for the match-makee" trope on its head by making the duke the matchmaker with a string of successes to bolster his belief in being able to find a match even for a wallflower. Well, the wallflower is not all that she seems. She swoops in to save ordinary people being scammed by corrupt businessmen. I liked how smart and independent the heroine is—this is a great story of feminism thriving under the shackles of patriarchy. I also really liked how thoughtful and respectful the duke is to everyone around him—no doubt his humble beginnings account for his lack of a top-lofty attitude. Ridley plays fast and loose with historical accuracy and some of her plot points require a large leap of faith that I was not always capable of making, but overall, this was an enjoyable read, which Ridley always delivers.

Unbreak Me by Michelle Hazen
Category: Contemporary Romance
Comments: [CW: rape, PTSD from rape, racism, trauma from Katrina]

This is not a book I can recommend overall, despite some parts that are beautiful. The protagonists, in themselves, are lovely people, and their slow-build friendship is likewise lovely. The author does a good job of showing how the heroine has survived her trauma by making her life very small and how the hero is a man of sensitivity and care, whether it comes to spooked horses or traumatized women. Some of their moments together are really sweet. However, the two protagonists have so much stacked against them, that the fact that they're dealing with so much and yet managing a love story is admirable. And yet, the author doesn't convincingly show how they're successfully overcoming their trauma and arriving at their HEA.

Here are some of the other problems in the book:
–Lyndon B. Johnson was a racist. No Black parent would name their child for him. This is not plausible..
–There was some confusion on part of the author about Haitian and Creole culture and the Haitian Creole language and conflation of the two.
–Calling Lupus backwards AIDS is offensive. While, yes, the way the autoimmune diseases react are different from each other, but they are not related and that depiction is a bad choice.
–Rape survivors suffer from PTSD and it takes years of gradual recovery. Nothing happens in one fell swoop, not even exposure therapy, which is how some authors show it with sex scenes between the heroine and hero. One sex encounter isn't going to do it.
–The overall tenor of how the white heroine deals with being in primarily black neighborhoods of NOLA leave a bad taste in the mouth and borders on racism.

We Should All Be Feminists by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie
Category: Nonfiction
Comments: This is an eloquently argued essay based on her TEDxEuston talk of the same title. In it, Adichie talks about how "feminist" has become a dirty work of extremism in our culture, one thrown out as an accusation rather than a laudation. It is neither. It is simply as its definition says: A person who believes in the social, political, and economic equality of the sexes.

"If we do/say/see something over and over again, it becomes normal. We internalize ideas from our socialization." (Who doesn't believe this in today's political atmosphere?) Nigerian culture, as does American culture, privileges men and their fragile egos over the wishes and dreams of women and proceeds to erase women and make them invisible. "We raise our girls to shrink themselves, make themselves smaller, compromise, and cater to the male ego. You can ambition, but not too much; you can be successful, but not too much; otherwise, you will threaten the man."

Adichie acknowledges the biological differences of men and women, while also noting that centuries past, when physical strength was required to lead, it made sense of men to lead. But now, when intelligence, knowledge, experience, creativity, innovation are the criteria for success, the different between men and women do not exist. However, our normal still privileges the male gender; girls still examine their lives and choices through the male gaze.

Adichie says that at the same time, "we do boys an injustice in how we raise them. We define masculinity very narrowly—to be hard men, Nigerian-speak—and we teach boys to be afraid of fear, of weakness, of vulnerability, of being their true selves. We are raised to expect so little of men that the idea of men as savage beings with no self-control [in the case of rape] is acceptable."

Some men say that they neither notice nor think about gender. (How many times in recent years have we heard this about race?) By not thinking about gender, they assume things are better now for females and do nothing about it, even when they see injustice happening. They're self-congratulatory in not being sexist, but their passivisity is sexism itself.

Once she wrote an article about gender differences and was accused of being angry, and she agrees it was angry, because "gender differences are a grave injustice. We should all be angry. Anger has a long history of bringing about positive change."

This is where I depart from the great Adichie. Is all the anger and vitriol visible on Romance Twitter really bringing about social change, or is it merely setting people's backs up? Isn't there a more intelligent way of debating to get your point across? Most people are resistant to change if change is crammed down their throats. More success will be had by appealing to their humanity. I will be vilified on Romance Twitter for saying this, but I needed to say this in my space. (After all, Gandhi was famous for his non-violence movement that not only brought about great social change but also independence for India. Martin Luther King Jr was greatly influenced by Gandhi, though his approach was different.)

Little known fact about Adichie: She is a huge fan of Mills & Boon! #MYPEOPLE

Siuluk the Last Tuniq by Nadia Sammurtok, illustrated by Rob Nix
Category: Children's Picture Book
Comments: Sammurtok was born in and lives in Nunavut, Canada and is passionate about preserving the traditional Intuit way of life and the Inuktitut language. The story of Siuluk, one of the last of the Tuniit living in Nunavut, has been passed down generation after generation in Sammurtok's family and community.

The Tuniit were said to be the gentle giants of the North. Siuluk was often told that he was the last tuniq (very strong) man alive. Siuluk was a friendly man who preferred to live quietly alone, not far from an Intuit village. Unfortunately for Siuluk, unkind people from the village often teased him unmercifully about his size, his way of life, and his strength. One day, Siuluk decided to prove his tuniq to them. There was a huge slab of rock outside the village. He asked each man to life it, but they couldn't. When he lifted it, they were humbled and embarrassed and vowed never to tease him again. Siuluk chiseled into the top of the rock: "If you are as strong as I am, move the rock." Generation after generation of men tried and were humbled and embarrassed and Siuluk's legend continued on.

My takeaway from this story is: Instead of being defensive, prove other people wrong—it is easier to make your point this way.


Thursday, August 1, 2019


My July Reading


I read an amazing feminist book this month, which included translated fiction stories by one Rokeya Sakhawat Hossain, an upper class lady from a secluded zenana in Eastern India in the early 1900s, her fascinating life history, and literary criticism of her work. I cannot tell you how much I enjoyed this book. Every person who contributed to the book is brilliant, and Rokeya, is fascinating and wildly inspirational. She's the model of which activists are made. More on her below.

I came across this lovely print on the internet somewhere, without provenance or copyright, and liked it so much that I stole it for my blog. Isn't it beautiful?

A Year with Rumi: Daily Readings translated & edited by Coleman Barks
Category: Poetry
Comments: I have mentioned before that whenever I approach Rumi trying to understand him, he anticipates me and my situation and has something to tell me. I had just started reading a philosophical book World Enough & Time by Christian McEwen about slowing down your life in order to savor it, when the very same day, my Rumi reading brought me this poem, "The Treasure's Nearness":

A man searching for spirit-treasure
cannot find it, so he is praying.
A voice inside him said, You were given
the intuition to shoot an arrow.
You were told to draw the bow
with only a fraction of your ability.
Do not exhaust yourself
like the philosophers who strain to shoot
the high arcs of their thought-arrows.


More on World Enough & Time next month when I've read more into it.

Sultana's Dream and Selections from The Secluded Ones by Rokeya Sakhawat Hossain (Author), Roushan Jahan (Editor), Roshan Jahan (Translator), Hanna Papanek (Afterword)
Category: Nonfiction Essays, Fiction Stories
Comments: This is a gem of a book! It's on ongoing read, so I'm just going to comment on the essay by Roushan on the AMAZING Rokeya this month.

Rokeya Sakhawat Hossain was born in 1880 in Pairabad, a small village in the Bengal region of India (now in Bangladesh) under British rule. She was born into a wealthy Muslim zamindar (landowning) family who observed strict purdah: the women were completely veiled in public and confined to the zenana (women's quarters) at home, while the men had the freedom to move from the mardana (men's quarters) to the zenana. Rokeya's mother's strict observance of purdah gave Rokeya a life of strict seclusion, a life condemned to illiteracy and no rights, a waste of human potential.

Luckily for Rokeya, her eldest brother taught her English and Bangla in secret, but it was only after her marriage that she truly came into her own. She was beyond blessed to marry a man of liberal attitudes who wanted from his wife not the traditional duty and obedience but love and empathy—he not only loved her, he was also proud of her. He supported her in whatever she set out to do and whoever she mingled with. She met with women of all classes and religions and learned how they navigated the world and what freedoms and restrictions they had. Rokeya was passionate about educating girls—I wonder if Malala has heard/read about her—and she had her husband's full support. Unfortunately, he passed away early. In his memory in 1911, she opened the Sakhawat Memorial Girls' School in Calcutta, which is still functional to this day.

Stiff opposition from wealthy influential Muslim men made Rokeya aware of the need to organize women, so in 1916, she founded the Muslim Women's Association. She was a tireless activist in recruiting women of all classes to her organization and showing them a better way of life forward. Her organization also offered financial assistant to poor widows, rescued and sheltered battered wives, helped poor families to marry their daughters, and helped poor women to achieve literacy.

And through it all she wrote articles and essays in noted newspapers and magazines about her experiences and her philosophy of women's education and the impact of it on the larger society. She also wrote fiction based on her philosophical principles. (More on that next month.) Rokeya is jaw-droppingly AMAZING, isn't she? To come from where she did to become who she did is a journey of such courage and conviction. It's awe-inspiring.

Gratitude by Dr. Oliver Sacks
Category: Nonfiction Essay Collection
Comments: I re-read this book many times, because it reminds me to slow down and find gratitude in my heart no matter my life situation. This book was part of the impetus to turn my Live Journal from a regular journal into a daily gratitude journal. That I had nothing to write in it for the past two months is a testament to how I was feeling. So I felt it was time for a re-read to remind myself that no matter how terrible a day, a week, a month is going, something good is also happening, no matter how small. This re-read reminded me to resume recording my daily appreciations.

This book is a collection of four of Sacks' essays: Mercury, My Own Life, My Periodic Table, and Sabbath. Written in the last two years of his life, I was struck by the grace and clarity of vision with which he was facing death and contemplating the quality of his life and the world around him. I discovered the collection only upon his death in 2015 when I found it mentioned in one his obituaries.

Sacks first came to my notice upon the publication of his op-ed essay My Own Life in the New York Times. He wrote the essay in mere days after learning in the winter of 2015 that the cancer in his eye, detected in 2005, had now spread to his liver and was terminal. The outpouring of support the piece received was a source of solace to him that he had lived a life of a lettered man and that he had a legacy he was going to leave behind.

Sacks was a fan of philosopher David Hume's work. In Hume's brief memoir, My Own Life, I see the bones of Sacks' essay of the same title. One thing that Hume wrote struck me as the epitome of how Sacks saw himself, to wit: "Notwithstanding the great decline of my person, [I have] never suffered a moment's abatement of my spirits; insomuch, that were I to name a period of my life, which I should most choose to pass over again, I might be tempted to point to this later period. I possess the same ardour as ever in study, and the same gaiety in company."

Sacks never allowed himself to descend into despair over life's many disappointments. He was what he described as immoderate in his passions—even in the last few months of his life, he felt intensely alive, worked on deepening his friendships, wrote, traveled, said his farewells, and strove to "achieve new levels of understanding and insight.'

Ayesha at Last by Uzma Jalaluddin
Category: Contemporary Romance
Comments: This is an excellent retelling of Pride & Prejudice with the focus on the romance. Set in Canada with Indian-Canadian Muslim protagonists and cast of characters, it was a delight from the first word to the last—rich with cultural texture and social nuance, it was laugh-out-loud funny in parts.

While staying true to the broad strokes of P&P, Jalaluddin has gone one step further than Austen by introducing religion into the maelstrom of Indian-Canadian cultural norms and societal mores. This adds a complexity to the novel that Austen sidestepped. Not only do the protagonists both feel like they're part of both worlds—India and Canada—yet part of neither, they feel the same about Islam. How Muslim are they? Jalaluddin allows them to guide their natural impulses and struggle with their human feelings and align them with what the holy Qur'an ascribes as being a good person.

I loved the depictions of the Indian-Canadian immigrant community of Toronto. All the harkening back to the old country, the adopting of modern Canadian cultural mores, the shocking of the old folks, the horrifying of the young generation—it is all done humorously and authentically. Lovely!

This was my best fiction read of the month. My review is here.

Men of Valor: His Treasure by Kiru Taye
Category: Historical Romance Novella
Comments: Set in South-Eastern Nigeria before the colonization by the British, this is an excellent story of yearning and what marriage means to a proud man and woman. She is a spoiled daughter of a wealthy man who is caught with a man and thus married off in a hurry to another man who desires her for his wife. She will have nothing to do with him and tells him so on their wedding night. He is in love with her, but too proud to force her—as would've been culturally appropriate for him—he wants her to come to him of her own free will. A year later, they are still living chastely, and he still yearns for her.

The author paints a picture of Nigeria that is confident and evocative. The country’s old ways are very much in evidence here, and it’s testament to her skill that I came away with the impression that this story could not possibly have been set anywhere else. The characters’ motivations, decisions, and actions stem from their culture and yet, in crucial ways, deviate from it; and where they diverge is a product of the individuality of the two protagonists. My review is here.

Desire and the Deep Blue Sea by Oliva Dade
Category: Contemporary Romance Novella
Comments: This is a low-conflict, cream puff of a story. Dade's hero is the epitome of a Cinnamon Roll Hero—a term that Dade has coined—and a great foil for the prickly heroine. They are work buddies who pretend to be in a relationship in order to participate in an island adventure for a reality TV show. He is in love with her, but he causes her great anxiety because of his behavior at work, in other words, she hates him.

Dade understands women very well, and in Thomas, she has created the perfect mate. Thomas offers understanding, acceptance, companionship, respect, and affection all wrapped up in a sexy package. Thomas really listens to what Callie is saying and changes his behavior accordingly. A man who takes feedback and gives the woman the respect of knowing her own mind is incredibly attractive. Dade gave Thomas the patience to wait for Callie to discover her feelings for him and the perseverance to not abandon his love for her as unrequited when faced with her resistance. My review is here.

A Debutante in Disguise by Eleanor Webster
Category: Regency Romance
Comments: This was an excellent story. The manuscript that I wrote many years ago featured just such a heroine: one who wants to be a doctor and defies society to be so by disguising herself and leading a double life. So I was naturally drawn to this book, and Webster has done a marvelous job with the storyline (far better than my poor offering). Webster pairs the heroine with a conservative hero who is aghast that the heroine is being so unwomanly. While he repudiates her, she offers him acceptance and compassion for his physical injuries and mental torments. The beauty of the story is how he gradually changes his opinions the more he gets to know her and understand her integrity, passion, and brilliance. This story got an 'A-' from me. My review is here.

A Highlander Walks into a Bar by Laura Trentham
Category: Contemporary Romance
Comments: This is a fun, light-hearted story with two warm, tender romances and is a perfect beach read. Most Highlander stories are historical romances set in Scotland. While there are tartans aplenty in this book, this is a modern-day story of Scottish Highlanders unfolding in America. There are two stories in this book: the heroine and a half-English-half-Scottish heir to a castle and the heroine's mother and a Scottish Earl, the uncle of the heir. And there are two estates: one in Highland, Georgia, with its fetish for all things Scottish, and the real deal in the Scottish Highlands. Which couple is going to live where? Who is going to give up which lifestyle and move where? For all its lightheartedness, it's not a rom-com. And it is very much a modern romance, just a quiet one. My review is here.

Falling for a Rake by Eve Pendell
Category: Historical Romance
Comments: One is a perfect rake and the other a perfect lady, and they come together in a hole in the ground. Surely, they are meant to be. And they are. But how they get from a stolen kiss at the bottom of an abandoned mineshaft to a marriage of love, trust, and respect is what makes this book interesting. She is a daughter of a duke and a spinster with Pteridomania, a passion for ferns. In childhood, she was a free-spirited girl, but in her adulthood, she has reigned in her emotions and wishes so tightly that she lives a half unfulfilled life, but she has convinced herself that she is leading an exemplary life of virtue and keeping her family free from scandal. He was a ne’er-do-well in his misspent youth but graduated to full rakehood in early adulthood. They both believe they are bad for the grievous wrong they did as young adults. This book, ultimately, is about forgiveness, about how you can do wrong, make reparations for it, and forgive yourself. And you can stop judging others. It is written in great emotional depth, and despite the surprise reveal that did give me pause, I felt the forgiveness arc worked. YMMV. My review is here.

A Love for All Seasons: Spring's Promise by Edith Layton
Category: Traditional Regency Romance Novella
Comments: I picked up this collection on the strength of Layton's name, and this first novella was very promising and springy (har!). Layton skillfully based the rakeshame hero on Damerel of Heyer's Venetia, though the heroine is no Venetia. Like Damerel, Layton's hero is well aware of his well-deserved disreputable reputation and also firmly set on not corrupting the impulsive beauteous young miss who is so bent on scandalizing country society. Their prearranged dawn riding meetings away from the scrutiny of society's sticklers allows them to form a friendship that is honest and without stylized posturing. And he falls hard for her. He's never had a friendship with a female before, and even though he loves females and everything to do with them, there's been no female before who understands him like the heroine does. So much of being in love with someone has to do with being comfortable with the one who "gets" them. And while these two are leagues apart in experience and background, they "get" each other. The success of this first novella augurs well for the rest of the collection.

Under the Stars of Paris by Mary Burchell
Category: Vintage Contemporary Romance
Comments: After my conversation with Willaful in the comments of last month's reading round-up, I decided to read this book again. The last time I read it was in October 2015, and this is what I thought of it then. But fast-forward four years, and I have a radically different opinion of the story. After having read so much of Burchell's work last month and Betty Neels' as well, I have a more nuanced view of the time period when these stories were written and a finer appreciation of Burchell's writing style and voice.

The heroine is not a doormat. In fact, she is one of Burchell's independent heroines, who knows her own worth and knows how to navigate her life with confidence. This is paired with looks and a practical honesty, which charms whoever she meets. Burchell is fond of innocent ingénues, but they still manage to manage their lives without needing someone else to manage it for them.

The hero is described as: a slight, fair-haired man with beautiful hands, thinning hair and the air of an exhausted and impatient schoolboy. In today's version of alpha heroes, he would be laughed at by readers. But make no mistake, he is an alpha through and through: dictatorial, ruthless, always wants his way, and not always nice.

What draws him to her is that she doesn't knuckle under his dominance. Such a simple thing, really. She stands up to him at her own peril—he is the haute couture Parisian designer, she's a British débutante model—she has no power in the relationship because he could easily fire her. And yet, yet she stands firmly on her principals, and in so doing, makes him capitulate. She grabs power by not giving in to him; he accedes power by respecting her upper hand. Burchell is a master at power in relationships as I discovered reading the Warrender Saga last month.

Read the late Miranda Neville's wonderful blog about this. Miranda was very fond of fashion and classical music—no wonder Burchell hit the sweet spot for her time and time again.

The Journey Together by Mary Burchell
Category: Vintage Contemporary Romance
Comments: Burchell has continued to be an 'A' to a 'B' read for me. While this one was not as fabulous at the one above, it was still a solid read. That is why I am so fascinated by Burchell's work, and I'm reaching for her books time and again since May. Current difficulties in life mean a desire for comfort reading. By comfort, I don't mean low conflict and cozy necessarily, just reliably good. I enjoy how lighthearted and practical her heroines are—gamine is the word for them—at the same time, they take their responsibilities seriously and have a verve for adventure and some risk-taking. I find their positivity wholly attractive, and I draw comfort that someone somewhere is taking their knocks in life with resilience.

Our heroine has been recruited to act as a secretary to the head of the travel firm on his convalescence trip to Austria and Italy with his wife. She is delighted beyond belief. Growing up shy and of modest means, she never dreams she would even be able to have a trip like this. She is determined to enjoy herself and work hard. Accompanying them is our hero, a relative of her employer, who also works for the firm, because both men have business in each of the cities they're visiting, in addition, to vacation time. He is not as alpha as Burchell's usual heroes, but is still sufficiently take-charge, to set her back up. Her growth from diffidence to assertiveness is done superbly well.

Beautiful rumination on what it means to have purpose in life and how that is necessary and also attractive. She is romanced by a care-for-nothing sophisticated fellow but eventually prefers the solid, hardworking, honest gentleman—competence is so enticing.

Emma's Wedding by Betty Neels
Category: Vintage Contemporary Romance
Comments: I had been warned by Ros Clarke that Neels' non-nurse romances would not work for me, because the heroines tend to be pushovers. Still I decided to chance it, and this story started out strong, so I was feeling good about then, but then at the halfway mark, it descended into "helpless damsel in need of rescue." Sigh!

When the heroine's father passes away, she and her mother realize that he left behind huge debts. So they have to give comfortable lifestyle in Richmond and move into a small cottage in a small seaside village. The heroine now has to get two jobs to make ends meet, but her mother is utterly clueless in knowing how to save money. Emma is saddled with all the household tasks as well as working, while her mother plays bridge and goes to cafes. She is a millstone around our stalwart heroine's neck.

Enter an über wealthy Dutch doctor, who takes one look at her and falls hard. But for most of the book, he takes great care not to rush her. He wants to fall in love with him on her own timeline. All well and good. But as her feelings for him grow, so does her helplessness, and worse, passivity. I think it's the latter that was more irritating than the former. She behaves like a doll allowing him to move her around, do things to her, have her do things, and she acquiesces without a murmur. This is not a HEA I can get behind but I guess they would be happy in their way, with him in the active, decision-making role on every small thing and she happily agreeing to it all.

Henrietta's Own Castle by Betty Neels
Category: Vintage Contemporary Romance
Comments: In a delightful change from the previous book, I discovered this great Neels book, thanks to Kay. I loved how Neels paired her usual alpha hero with an alpha heroine with both having some beta qualities as well. In this story, Neels also has bits from the hero's POV and an omniscient POV to show us how the hero is feeling—so everything isn't filtered from the heroine's perspective. That made for a richer story, and I liked both characters very much. And...there is no mocking from the hero. A decided plus!

While the heroine is a Sister, the medical matters are minimal in that, the story does not unfold in a hospital setting, though she is required in her nursing capability a few times in the book. The heroine is a hardworking, independent spirit, who move to a new country, settles there, and makes a place for herself in Dutch society by mingling with the village folk, helping to nurse patients during a plane crash, aiding two lovers to come together, and learning Dutch. This last detail is a departure from other Neels' heroines who refer to Dutch as an incomprehensible foreign language. Our heroine makes an effort to make a success of her new life. She's even willing to climb a tall ladder and fix her leaking roof when the hero, her landlord, is being a boor by not sending someone to help her. From the way the story ends, I get the feeling that our indomitable heroine is going to continue working part-time as a nurse even after her wedding. Go, girl!

The Big Green Book by Robert Graves, illustrated by Maurice Sendak
Category: Children's Picture Book
Comments: The pedigree of the writer and illustrator is why I picked up this book. It's a curious book for Graves to write. He was known for historical novels, such as I, Claudius and translations of Apuleius, Suetonius, and others. A children's picture book from one such as he is highly unusual. The prose is a bit stilted, more formal, and the imagination is quite like what one would think a child would think like as opposed to what a child would really think like. There is also an element of glee at misfortune that is odds with the tenor of current children's picture books. Having said all that, the story is entertaining. And the illustrations are simply WOW! They're pen and ink illustration with great detail and emotional expressivity—Sendak is truly exemplary.

A young boy lives with an aunt and uncle, of whom he is not very fond, but who are fond of him, as the reader realizes over the course of the book, but the boy fails to realize. One day, he finds a dusty big green book in the attic and is delighted to discover that it is a book of magic spells. If he draws a line around him in the ground with a stick and take three deep breaths while holding on to the book, he can become whoever he wants to be, even disappear. So he takes on the guise of a very old man and tricks his aunt and uncle and their dog mercilessly and makes them feel very silly, because they don't know who he is. At the end of the day, he assumes his usual guise without revealing his tricks. He has a good chuckle over it, and he goes on to excel at school and other things, thanks to the book.

I am sure kids will laugh over his antics as well, but the end of the story is not quite what we would like our children to learn these days.

Disconnected: How to Reconnect Our Digitally Distracted Kids by Thomas Kersting
Category: Nonfiction
Comments: A poorly formulated, poorly written, and poorly edited "book" by a self-aggrandizing "nationally renowned" psychotherapist, who needs help writing his own bio. I would never have picked it up if it hadn't been a book that our school chose as their inaugural book for their summer reading program for parents and students. I would like to take the person/people in charge of this book selection and shake them. What. Utter. Rubbish.

While he is absolutely right that the amount of time kids spend on social media these days is detrimental to their mental health, his data and conclusions about total screen time is from a study from 2008. As a result, it makes no allowance for how much computers are used in kids' daily school life with in-class and at-home usage. Most families these days aren't watching as much TV. His number is that 64% are together as a family, which is incorrect. And so on. I DNF'd the book when he quoted a New York Post (RIGHT?! That piece of junk?!) article that said that "many NYC students are so tech-oriented they can't even sign their own names." And with no sense of irony, he takes it as gospel and expounds on it. Apparently, using smartphones is reducing their fine-motor skills.


Monday, July 1, 2019


My June Reading


Due to a family crisis at the end of May, my reading at the beginning of this month was all comfort reading and listening to my cassette tape of Kathleen Battle Sings Mozart over and over and over again.

I read traditional Regencies and old contemporaries, all short ones, one after the other. I was unable to hold stories in my head for long, detailed pieces for Frolic Media or All About Romance—see only short reviews below—and so I decided to stay away from books for review. I refused to surrender my integrity and turn in slap-dash pieces without much thought, so I thought it was better that I didn't embark on complicated books. As the crisis resolved into more long-term intensity later in the month and I wasn't as terrified every minute, I delved into some of the scheduled books.

My glom this month was Mary Burchell's Warrender Saga contemporaries for Mills & Boon from the 1960s and 1970s. For those of you who don't know her, Mary Burchell was the pen name of Ida Cook. Along with her eldest, sister Mary Louise Cook, she helped 29 Jews to escape from the Nazis, funded mainly by her writing. In 1965, the Cook sisters were honored as Righteous Gentiles by the Yad Vashem Martyrs and Heroes Remembrance Authority in Israel. Ida published more than 125 romance novels in total and helped found the Romantic Novelists’ Association, standing as its president from 1966 until her death in 1986.

While I majored in Burchell, I minored in Betty Neels with a small glom of three books. I had read three of her books previously and read three this month. What is interesting about Neels is that she had two long careers. She took up romance writing, and wrote into her nineties, after she retired from nursing. Where did she find the stamina to write more than 130 books. Her nursing experience shows in her command of the hospital aspects of her books and that is what interests me most about her books.

I have a longish comparison and analysis of Burchell's and Neels' books after my reviews of those books.

This is a very long post since I read so much this month: 3600+ pages. First, there are the romance reviews, then the poetry ones, then nonfiction, and then children's picture books. At the very bottom of the post is a romance novel review with a content warning for rape. I put it at the bottom so you can skip it if need be. It is a Carla Kelly, and I consider it one of her best.

A Song Begins by Mary Burchell
Category: Contemporary Romance
Comments: This is Book 1 of Burchell's Warrender Saga series, written in the 1960s, and it tells the story of the world famous conductor Oscar Warrender and Anthea Benton, the only voice student he takes on as a protegée. He proceeds to browbeat her and her voice into submission. He thinks her voice needs a lot of careful development before she would be ready for the stage, and he guards her and convinces her away from being exploited by the lure of easy money and fame.

I really liked how the heroine tempers the hero's alpha-ness and how he in turn infuses her with a sense of self-esteem and an awareness of her own right in the music world and between them. What starts out as a severe imbalance of power between them, gets equalized by both of their efforts done purely for love. While he retains his basic alpha-ness outside the home in the music world, she retains her basic goodness and kindness in the outside world, too. But between themselves, they're equal partners, each having their alpha and beta moments.

Even in the short format, only 188 pages, Burchell developed a solid plot and characters of depth. It takes skill to write stories from the heroines' perspectives, because it can be difficult to portray the heroes well enough to not be caricatures. But by employing other people's perceptions, detailed observations of the hero's actions by the heroine, well-developed dialogue, and a look into the comprehensive cogitations of the heroine, Burchell built a full impression of the hero (and the heroine) in the reader's mind.

I took the self-effacement of the heroine and the patriarchy in stride, because I treated these books, written in the 1960s, as historicals, and they seem to fit in the mores of the time from what I know of them.

The Broken Wing by Mary Burchell
Category: Contemporary Romance
Comments: This is Book 2 of the Warrender Saga series and features the artistic director of a famous music festival, Quentin Otway, his secretary, Tessa Morley, and of course, Oscar Warrender, the famous conductor.

Quentin is the usual Burchell hero: demanding, brusque, temperamental, but brilliant. He was jilted three days before his wedding, and since then, has sworn off love.

Tessa lives in the shadow of her glamorous twin, and is content with her voice lessons, at which she is fantastic, and her job, also at which she is fantastic. Along the way, she falls in love with Quentin, but he seems to have no time for her, other than to carelessly tell her how much he values her as a secretary. And he flirts with her twin to her despair.

While I really enjoyed this book, I have an issue with the hero referring to the heroine as a "damaged angel," because she is a superb secretary and has a limp. WHAT!! Burchell's choice is upsetting. I had been warned by Willaful that there was problematic disability rep—for a few years, even the title of the book had been changed to that phrase—but I wanted to see for myself how Burchell portrayed disability. Her way of expressing the heroine here, made me skip Book 3 of the Warrender Saga, which features a hero blinded in adulthood.

A small peeve: I would like Burchell's heroines to not stammer to project an image of being an ingénue—it is a silly authorial affectation.

The Curtain Rises by Mary Burchell
Category: Contemporary Romance
Comments: This is the Book 4 of the Warrender Saga, and in it, a secretary to a prima donna is virtually engaged to a gifted viola player, whose untimely death on a music tour leaves her grief-stricken. From chance remarks by various musicians and the conductors on the tour, she is led to the conclusion that something havey-cavey happened, and her fiancé's demise was not as straightforward as it initially seemed.

Until the 60% mark in the book, the heroine is lamenting after her fiancé, while at the same time, her awareness of the conductor from the tour is growing apace. But given that she blames him for the untimely death, she is clearly conflicted. Therefore, her realization that she is in fact in love with the conductor is a bit rushed—it feels she transfers her feelings from her fiancé to the conductor fairly quickly.

In the meantime, the conductor fell in love with her through her fiancé's descriptions during the tour, and her constant suspicion and cold accusations leave him distraught. It is remarkable how Burchell conveys this to the reader without the heroine realizing this, even though the story is told completely from her point-of-view. It is he who is the star of the story, while she is the alpha.

Child of Music by Mary Burchell
Category: Contemporary Romance
Comments: This is the Book 5 of the Warrender Saga. The heroine is a music teacher of repute with a child prodigy as one of her students. She is determined to get the girl into a specialized boarding school for gifted musicians. The problem is that the enigmatic director of the school's girlfriend is the girl's aunt, and the girl is absolutely petrified of her evil aunt who hates her.

To complicate matters, our heroine is deeply attracted to the director, and he can see no wrong with the aunt, who pulls the wool over his eyes. The hero's naiveté where his girlfriend is concerned felt a tad disingenuous—he is a willing victim in his hoodwinking. So his realization that the heroine is his true love was a bit sudden towards the end. The hero is the story felt

This is a wonderful psychological thriller romance, where you are constantly left wondering when, where, and how the evil aunt will strike next. Burchell has created and sustained the atmosphere of menace rather well.

Music of the Heart by Mary Burchell
Category: Contemporary Romance
Comments: This is the Book 6 of the Warrender Saga. I read Music of the Heart two years ago, and my experience this time was a bit different. It is all due to having read the Saga series one after the other, so I could appreciate Burchell's voice and storytelling style more and really enjoy seeing Oscar Warrender's character grow across the series. I got one read of Warrender when I came at this book in the middle of the series—he made an impression but not a lasting one—and quite another after having read the series in order.

One of the best things about this series has been Burchell's very knowledgeable discourse on classical music. Music permeates every action, every thought in the stories, so much so that it feels as if there are three protagonists instead of the usual two. How the heroine of this story thinks of the hero applies to all the main characters of Burchell's stories.

Her view of him had changed a good deal too. Not only because she had met him and talked with him, but because it was not possible to have studied his work so intensively without gaining some knowledge of the sensitivity, the feeling for beauty, the real compassion, and the deep human warmth which his music revealed.

The heroine is a generous-hearted girl with a love of classical music, who is full of life and a refreshing frankness. She brings enjoyment to all who come into her sphere, whether they’re chance-met people or friends she’s known for years. She even affects our hard-hearted hero, the famous composer of a new opera. He needs a contralto heroine and she is a contralto, but he suspects her of engineering their introduction for career-enhancing reasons, despite protestations by her that she is meeting him at the behest of his brother, who is her good friend.

The hero and his father share a constant push-and-pull relationship with respect to the hero's career, because the father, while a world-famous pianist, has always wanted to compose, and the hero is a genius composer. So the more the hero demurs about the heroine's candidacy, the more the father champions her. The story has secrets and plenty of emotional juggling to make the end a satisfying read.

Unbidden Melody by Mary Burchell
Category: Contemporary Romance
Comments: This Book 7 of the Saga has a low-angst romance, and I was all for it. The romance is sweet and kind and thoughtful. She is the secretary to a famous impresario of classical music, who represents greats like the Warrenders, the Bannisters, and so on. She's meticulous, well-trained, and knowledgeable about music. He is a world famous tenor, who is grief stricken over the death of his wife and guilt-ridden over the same. From the first, the two are drawn together. Of course, there is always a triangle, and this time, it is another woman who makes our heroine jealous.

What was interesting about this story is how the hero's life had been made into a living hell not only by his wife's intense jealousy—she spied on him and stalked him when he was on tour—but her attempts then to make him jealous of her affairs. When the well-meaning heroine's well-meaning intents go astray, she runs afoul his vow not to marry a jealous woman again. How they retrieve the situation is what makes the story fun to read.

I really like Burchell's characters' commonsense and practical approach to life and its events. While they do experience real human emotions that can sometimes run away from them, eventually, their sensible side always rises to the fore and allows misunderstandings to not linger for long and for them to offer unreserved apologies when they are in the wrong.

Song Cycle by Mary Burchell
Category: Contemporary Romance
Comments: I have completely lost my head. This is Book 8 of the Saga, and I've been reading them one after the other.

I love having Oscar Warrender show up and wave his magic wand and waft away difficulties, but I find the showing up of protagonists from other books a bit of a drag. This is especially true in this story, where a provincial music festival is being held in the country, far from London, and these operatic heavyweights show up to praise and support a church organist, who is a composer of modest talent, his daughter, who is still a music student of untried, but stupendous, talent, and an organizer of the festival who has no musical background, but plenty of money.

The hero of the book is a young, low-on-the-totem-pole, artistic director (and possibly a conductor?—that part wasn't explained very well) who auditions the heroine for his Canadian tour, and then shows up frequently at the country festival during the planning stages, doing goodness knows what. Warrender also inexplicably shows up during the planning. This book wasn't conceptualized very well, which is unusual for Burchell. Her stories are usually tightly written.

I wasn't enamored of the heroine very much after the 50% mark. She tended to leap to negative conclusions about the hero often, and while she apologized sincerely and at length, I couldn't see what the hero saw in her, other than she being beautiful and having a beautiful voice. Every time she finds his behavior inexplicable, instead of believing in him she brushes him off, and then she has to have someone explain everything to her, before she rushes over to apologize to him. At one point, he says to her, "Frankly, there've been too many mistakes where you and I are concerned. I'm finally and absolutely sick of them."

What I really like about Burchell is the tight-knit relationships—family and friends—that surround the characters. It is wonderful to see uncomplicated and supportive parents who love their children, who are there with a word of wisdom or a dose of commonsense, but who also give the characters their independence. In far too many modern contemporary stories, familial relationships are fraught with disappointments and far worse. It's nice to see warmth and understanding, instead of strife. I am not fond of the saccharine small-town books with their everyone-knows-everyone's-business relationships, but I do want to see protagonists having some, for lack of a better word, wholesome relationships.

Nightingale by Mary Burchell
Category: Contemporary Romance
Comments: This is the Book 11 of the Saga, and this is the last Burchell I will be reading for a while. I don't know which of her other books are out in digital, but a few that I checked are not, and I am not inclined to pay the money required to acquire them in print form. As it is, these digital copies are expensive, given the short formats. But they've been very enjoyable this month and were exactly what I needed.

This story is where the connection to Oscar Warrender is the most tenuous, but also where the hero and heroine are on closer footing power dynamics-wise. She is a mere singing student of a church organist, who also bashfully composes on the side. So while as a teacher, he rules her life and can be peremptory, he is so unsure of his composition talent, that she takes charge of infusing his work with life and him with belief in himself. It was very interesting watching the power shift between them depending on whose musical career was being discussed. Because of this, I thought this quieter story was one of Burchell's best Warrender stories.

The love triangle is also interesting because not only does the other man challenge our hero romantically but also musically. It was enjoyable to watch the heroine look at two men whom she liked in different ways and with whom she was in charity at different points in the story and decide whether she was in love with either or none of them. Even though the back cover copy tells you who she chooses, still, Burchell keeps you guessing as to when the heroine is going to make the choice.

Oscar Warrender is a fascinating character who shows up in every book and advises, counsels change, and helps solve difficulties. His presence, like Rothgar in Jo Beverley's Malloren series, is the anchor to the series as a Yoda-like character. But Warrender's prescience and thoughtfulness arises, I believe, from his deep immersion in music. It brings

Damsel in Green by Betty Neels
Category: Contemporary Romance
Comments: This book was recommended to me by Ros. This was a wonderful story—well-developed heroine-centric story, where the hero remains much of a mystery, except through her perceptions. The heroine is just lovely: hardworking, thoughtful, generous of heart, and gets along well with everyone, except for constant missteps with the hero. Her interactions with the children are the heart of the book and are filled with warmth and joy. She truly embodies the tenets of nursing as not just a profession but as a calling.

She is about to be promoted to Sister, but a chance request, from a half-British-half-Dutch surgeon at the hospital to become a home nurse for his young ward for three months, has her choosing to explore life a bit beyond what she sees as a straight and narrow future at the hospital. She dreams of a husband and a home of her own, but she is not sure if they are in her future. So she lavishes all the love in her heart on the young (and not so young) cousins of the surgeon, and they in turn love her. And in so doing, she brings sweetness into his life and unknowingly shows him what type of marriage he should desire and with whom. He says to her, "I can't think how we ever managed without you..."

A small peeve: The hero tells his teen girl cousin: "That's only an excuse so that you can eat everything in sight! You'll get fat, Phena. No one will want to marry you." Ah! :(

Heaven is Gentle by Betty Neels
Category: Contemporary Romance
Comments: This book was recommended to me by Kay. I really enjoyed this story—it felt fresh and complex. The heroine has settled into life as a Sister at the hospital. In a surprise assignment, she is called to assist in a special research project on asthma in the wilds of the Scottish Highlands. There she meets a professor surgeon who gives her the impression that he's an ordinary doctor as he rescues her from mishaps and isn't finicky about the tasks he has to do around the place.

He is engaged to be married, and acknowledges this, but still kisses the heroine. I minded that he was cheating on his fiancée, but the heroine took it as a sign that he wasn't in love his fiancée, thus leaving the door open for her to convince him that she is eminently more suitable. However, when she sees how immensely wealthy he is, she is convinced that his anemic fiancée is more suited to his ostentatious lifestyle than herself—she's but an ordinary girl. Once she overcomes her shock, however, she falls in love with the house, the feudal estate, and how wonderfully it is run by an efficient staff with deep ancestral roots in the estate—quite the same reaction Lizzie Bennett had to Pemberley in P&P.

This was the book in which I felt that the Neels heroine really made a push to nab the hero—she wasn't going to just let him slip through her fingers, despite not being totally sure of his feelings and being overwhelmed by his wealth. She remains convinced of her feelings and acts on them. It was great to see that she didn't just let romance happen to her, but she tried to engineer her happy ever after.

Here are my reviews of the three Neels I read previously also recommended by Kay (Miss Bates): Tulips for Augusta, Tabitha in Moonlight, and Wish with the Candles.

Visiting Consultant by Betty Neels
Category: Contemporary Romance
Comments: I really liked this story the best among all the six Neels I read. For the first time, I found myself laughing quite a bit. Neels does humor well, and it's surprising she hasn't done it more before. The heroine is a theater sister and the hero is a visiting surgeon from The Netherlands. What is unusual is that they share a godfather, and that creates an instant bond between them. While their relationship is prickly, his with her family (grandmother and siblings) is very good.

After being orphaned at an early age, she has worked herself to the bone to bring up her siblings and keep her family solvent. As a result, she feels that her secure job as a sister is the height of where life is going to take her. And while she loves her job, she dreams of something more: a husband, wealth where the daily grind is not so miserable, and a family of her own.

This story has one of the best medical scenes I have ever read. Neels does the ominous atmosphere and emotions of the people really well in the scene where a fire is encroaching on the theater in which a surgery is being calmly and unhurriedly conducted. This story features a much more interesting hero, who drops his guard from the stern, cultured, wealthy man to someone who would be willing to sit in an apple tree, take kids for rides in his Bentley, visit an old woman for chats, and have petty impulses. I liked this hero very much

I noticed this in all the Neels books, but especially in this book, tea is used very well as a means of connecting with people and managing emotions. There is a very nice mystery here surrounding the other woman in his life. Neels keeps the reader guessing right past 95% of the book.

Mary Burchell vs. Betty Neels

It's been interesting reading eight Burchells followed by three Neels (and the three I read last year) and reflecting on the two different types of heroines, because Burchell and Neels do have a "type" of heroine. Neels' heroines have more agency, because they are already setup in mentally and physically challenging nursing careers, While some of Burchell's heroines have jobs, they're mostly lower-skilled ones; many are just waiting to break into their music careers. However, Burchell's heroines seem to have more emotional agency than Neels' heroines—they're more emotionally complex and more in tune with their emotions. There is also less push-n-pull of the "does he / doesn't he love me" emotions in Burchell's books, whereas there's much of those ruminations in Neels' plots.

While Warrender does play an ex deus machina role in the stories, there are more people playing different roles in Burchell's plots. In contrast, Neels narrows the focus to a few characters and bores down into more interactions between the two protagonists. The constant navel-gazing can be a bit much—I'd have preferred the heroines to have a bit of courage in their romance, like they do in their nursing jobs.

While both books are written from the heroines' point-of-view (and some omniscient to convey what is happening to the heroine and elsewhere in the plot), Burchell manages to convey much more of what the heroes are thinking than Neels. Heroes from both sets of books tend to be amused by the heroines a lot and mocking or brusque right off the bat and throughout the story, blowing hot and cold between abrupt hot kisses and then back to the cold normal, and you mostly don't understand what the hero is going through that makes him behave in this fashion. You do have some idea in the Burchells, but not at all in the Neels. In both sets of books, I found the heroines frown at the heroes and feel rage towards them out of proportion to the provocation—it could be that they think the heroes are laughing at them and making fun of them in their minds.

What is inexplicable in many of the books by both the authors is at what point does the hero decide to confess his love for the heroine. Yes, the plot does dictate a closure to the story, but emotionally-speaking, what is that undefinable point at which the hero is convinced that his proposal will not be rejected out of hand? Given the usually prickly nature of their relationships, it takes a leap of faith to put yourself in a vulnerable position to be the first one to confess their love to the heroines.

Burchell's plots seem more intricate and individual—the guidelines for Neels' books are stricter because of the British nurse heroine and Dutch consulting surgeon hero requirement. However, this is precisely where Neels' skill comes through in making each story unique within those rules.

I do realize that patriarchy is rampant in both sets of books with the masterful, wealthy male as the lead and the woman as the gentle foil—but, like I mentioned above in this post, I took that in style because these books were written by women born before 1905. In the Burchells, there is some equalizing of power dynamics towards the end, whereas, in the Neels, the power dynamics remain unchanged by the end.

Overall, there is definite romance between the protagonists and their happy ever afters are believable, because there is not only love binding them together, but shared interests also—so there is love and companionship, the best kind of relationship.

Summer Campaign by Carla Kelly
Category: Traditional Regency Romance
Comments: I had a bad Kelly book (anthology) last month, so I was a bit apprehensive how this one would turn out, though in the past, I have read stellar Kellys. This one turned out to be great as well. Wonderful story of two wounded people. He is suffering from nightmares and self-hatred from his experiences in the war. She is under pressure to marry the vicar, since he is the only person who has proposed to her, and the people she lives with force her to accept him to get her out of their house. Even though she feels smothered and bullied by the vicar, she feels powerless to change the course of her life.

Until she meets the hero. He thinks she is bold, capable, and compassionate—qualities she never knew she had or believed she possessed. In turn, she helps him over his nightmares and self hatred and shows him what a wonderful person he is—compassionate, loyal, and steady. They are so good to each other and for each other—this is a book that got me in the feels. In general, Kelly's characters are basically such good people, it always feels good to spend time reading about them.

(I have a tendency to latch on to a word at the beginning of the day and having it crop up everywhere. Today's word was "good.")

A Lady's Guide to Celestial Mechanics by Olivia Waite
Category: Regency Romance
Comments: This is a great story of astronomy, mathematics, embroidery, and botany and the two women who are experts in their fields. A seminal work in celestial mathematics in French brings them together, one a benefactress of the other, but with no awkwardness between them. They are colleagues first, then friends, before they fall in love. The romance is tender and passionate, while the science is brilliant and complex and authentic. Waite does a good job of balancing the science with the romance, neither overwhelming the other. This is a great start to Waite's Feminine Pursuits series, and I'm looking forward to reading her next book. My review is here.

Upon a Midnight Clear by Amanda McCabe
Category: Traditional Regency Romance Novella
Comments: Lovely story that in its short form of 68 pages presents a full-realized romantic arc. A scarred and emotionally damaged naval war hero and a Jamaican daughter of a freed slave find love along the desolate Cornish coast. He shuns society because he realizes he is monstrous when his fiancée cuts off her engagement to him in horror. She shuns society because they're not very accepting of her roots and race. But between them, these two wounded souls find welcoming approval and attraction, which acts as a balm to their soul and infuses them with the courage to step together and outward into society.

McCabe builds their relationship through friendship first and attraction later. They're comfortable with each, at peace and willing to share their deepest-held secrets and anguishes. I loved that both of them are willing to live in London and Jamaica to be close to both their families and their roots—living where both are at home. Add a touch of magic and the healing arts of her Jamaican and further back, African, roots, and this is a Christmas story with a miracle.

The Taming of Mei Lin by Jeannie Lin
Category: Historical Romance Novella
Comments: The heroine is famous for her sword-fighting skills and holds the goons sent by her thwarted suitor thug at bay. Until one day, she is bested by an incredibly handsome man...becomes she allows herself to be bested. He is known throughout the land for his honesty and honor. Lately, she has been feeling very desperate, maintaining her uncle's noodle stand on a dust road of a forgotten village in Tang dynasty China, bearing her uncle's insults and the town's thug's advances. So when the hero comes along, she allows herself to be beguiled. But while he is attracted to her and admires her, he cannot take her away with him, because he's on a spy mission for the Imperial Kingdom.

This is a short, not even a novella, at only 43 pages, but it packs quite a long story between its covers. This was my introduction to Lin's work, and I am not surprised now that she comes across highly recommended. Her lyrical prose, command of the history, and ability to paint an authentic picture of the time and place makes this an unforgettable story.

The Education of Miss Patterson by Marion Chesney AKA M.C. Beaton
Category: Traditional Regency
Comments: This was a 'D' read for me, and I gave Chesney's The Dreadful Debutante a 'C' last year, so Chesney, despite her fame, is probably not for me.

The hero and heroine meet when she is his sixteen-year-old orphaned ward, who is a hoyden being raised by an ancient nurse and a simpering governess. She breaks a window in a fit of temper, so he turns her over his knee and spanks her bottom and then promptly ships her off to America for three years with a new martinet of a governess to learn manners and grow into a young lady.

The main story of the book starts after she returns to England, and the development of their relationship and the love triangle is an improvement over the above and that is what made the grade rise from a 'D' to a 'C.' What made it sink back down to a 'D' is that the hero in a drunken jealous rage nearly rapes her. Well the word "nearly" is used by the hero because there was no penetration, but the terror was there, and that, to me, was rape of her feelings. He tells about his actions to his friends who have no reaction to it. He feels some remorse, but nowhere enough IMO. Even the heroine, during that not-rape is overcome by her love and attraction for him after a bit. UGH! Not my cuppa tea.

Margarita and the Earl by Joan Wolf
Category: Traditional Regency
Comments: I was so excited to find a new Regency by Joan Wolf that I was willing to read a published book that should've seen an editor. I have loved every single one of her old traditional Regencies. However this new dive back into that style of writing was disappointing. Similarly, I was disappointed by her newly-written Master of Grex last year.

Margarita is the half-Venezuelan-half-English daughter of an earl. Before his death, he brings the orphaned Margarita away from the civil war and strife of her country to England. Upon this death, his nephew and heir and Margarita find themselves forced into a marriage of convenience by his will. Margarita's Venezuelan heritage is done superbly by Wolf, and I enjoyed reading about the political history, which may be a bit much for some people, but which I enjoyed thoroughly.

Depending upon the story, in some extenuating circumstances, I can stand infidelity. But in this book, Nicholas casually sleeps with his two mistresses even after his marriage to Margarita. At one point in the story, she was sick with influenza and stayed back at their country seat, so he goes to London alone for a month for Parliament and the Season and sleeps with his mistresses and justifies it by saying, "I'm not a monk." UGH! Then when Margarita finds out, she takes him to task and he repeats the asinine monk comment. When she leaves him, she writes in the note that it was not his fault, but hers. Double UGH!

Poems by Tulika Dugar
Category: Poetry
Comments: Dugar has been writing lovely poems on Facebook. The simplicity of her writing really appeals to me—it portrays images and ideas that I can relate to in my life and in my imagination. She mostly writes from her own imagination, but sometimes to paintings and illustrations. Here's a snippet of a recent one that I especially liked.

Good night to the tired brow
The slumber earned
As the day sunk low
A sleepy sun
Will warm our hearts
A morning for everyone


Shadow of Sirius by W.S. Merwin
Category: Poetry
Comments: Winner of the National Book Award and the Pulitzer Prize, Merwin is known to be one of America's greatest poets. His death three months ago, brought him to my attention, so I decided to give one of his poetry collections a try. Unfortunately, I found it impenetrable. The strings of unrelated words, the clashing ideas, the lack of overarching themes, all contributed to an incomprehensibility outside my realm of experience with poetry since I recommenced reading it in the past few years. But here is one of the ones that appealed to me, possibility because it has a story. It is about a photographer who has recently died.

Later in the day
after he had died and the long box
full of shadow had turned the corner
[…]
fortunately someone who understood
what was on the panes [of glass] bought everything in the studio
almost no letters were there but on the glass
they turned up face after face
of the light before anyone had beheld it
[…]
[images] in days not seen except by the bent figure
invisible under the hood
who had just disappeared


Velocity of Being: Letters to a Young Reader edited by Mary Popova and Claudia Zoe Bedrick
Category: Nonfiction
Comments: When Maria Popova talked about this book of hers when it published last year, I knew I had to read it. I greatly admire Popova and the invaluable work she does with Brain Pickings. I have donated to her labor of love and towering scholarship, time and again and am considering becoming a regular monthly donor.

Velocity of Being is a collection of 121 letters written to young readers by famous writers, scientists, philosophers, musicians, artists, actors, thinkers, and many others about what reading has meant to them and the importance of reading. It's a thick book of thick paper filled with letters on one side of facing pages and colorful pictures illustrating the letters on the other side.

Of the book, Popova writes, "From these micro-memoirs and reflections by lifelong readers who have made extraordinary lives for themselves emerges a kind of encyclopedia of personhood, an atlas of possibility for the land of being mapped through the land of literature."

A couple of examples from the book:
"We wouldn't need books quite so much if everyone around us understood us well."
—Alain de Botton, writer
"What reading does is get to the bottom of what matters the most."
—Jacqueline Woodson, writer
"Information is not the same as knowledge. You still need to think about what you are learning and what it means."
—Alan Lightman, physicist
"Some of my biggest and most exciting escapades have sprung from the pages of books."
—Richard Branson, entrepreneur, balloonist

There are just too many to quote here. But one of the most marvelous one comes from Mohammed Fairouz, a composer who explores geopolitical and philosophical themes.

"Fourteen hundred years ago, in the desert of Arabia, Angel Gabriel came to Mohammed with a message: "READ!" This is the first word of al-Qurʼān. As a result, his followers contributed to every branch of knowledge from algebra to optics and medicine to music. Countless things we have today would not exist without their contributions, including the space station, glasses, aspirin, the iPad..."

This is Water: Some Thoughts, Delivered on a Significant Occasion, about Living a Compassionate Life by David Foster Wallace
Category: Nonfiction
Comments: This is a commencement address Wallace gave at Kenyon College in 2005. It is a concise reflection of Wallace's writing and philosophy, which is very much a common man's philosophy—accessible and digestible—practical lessons about human nature and compassion.

The most obvious, ubiquitous, and important realities are often the ones that are hardest to notice, because we go through life on our default, automatic setting, where "how we construct meaning is not a matter of personal, intentional, conscious choice." Part of this auto-mode is a natural, basic self-centeredness that we are born with that makes others' thoughts and feelings less urgent, less real.

A liberal arts education is said to teach you how to think, but Wallace says that it teaches you how to exercise some control over what you choose to pay attention to and how you choose to make meaning of experience. It also teaches you to have some critical awareness about yourself.

He ties these two ideas of developing awareness by telling the students that a large part of adulthood involves boredom, routine, and frustration. And it is "exactly in this petty, frustrating crap where the work of choosing comes in." To me, this means that you can decide to think differently about the situations you find yourself in, instead of defaulting to your self-centered way of thinking.

The following, to me, is emblematic of everything that is wrong with the prized American notion of Personal Independence and Freedom: Obsession with money and individualism is cause individuals to lose interest in their ancestors, descendants, and contemporaries. As a result people are becoming lonelier and lonelier. Wallace says, "The so-called real word of men and money and power hums along quite nicely on the fuel of fear and contempt and frustration and craving and the worship of self." This, to me, is the exact opposite of social awareness, compassion for others, and doing for others, which increases personal happiness. Human weren't meant for hyper-individualism; they were meant for communal enterprise in societies.

According to Wallace, "The really important kind of freedom involves attention and awareness and discipline and effort and being able truly to care about other people and to sacrifice for them over and over in myriad petty little unsexy ways every day. That is real freedom. That is being taught to think."

Planting Stories: The Life of Librarian and Storyteller Pura Belpré by Anika Aldamuy Denise, illustrated by Paola Escobar
Category: Children's Picture Book
Comments: The author has deep roots in Puerto Rico, quite like Pura Teresa Belpré herself. Pura arrived in New York City in 1921 and decided to stay to begin una vida nueva (a new life). Her job as a bilingual assistant at the New York Public library sealed her future. When Pura realized that there weren't any Spanish books in the library, she wrote them herself and had a publisher publish them. In addition, she instituted bilingual children's storytimes with puppets and performances, and also celebrated Latinx holidays with costumes and folktales. She was passionate about storytelling, about conveying the joys of books to children, and about making libraries the cultural community hubs for all people. She traveled to classrooms, churches, and lots of places around NYC planting seeds of cuentos (stories). Today, there's an award in her name given to Latinx authors and illustrators by the American Library Association.

Owl Moon by Jane Yolen, illustrated by John Schoenherr, narrated by Jane Yolen
Category: Children's Picture Book Audio
Comments: I'm not much of an audio book person, but this was a great book to listen to. What Audible also did was to show a slideshow of the artwork so the kids have something to focus on while they listen. It helped anchor me as well. The story is about a little girl going out "owling" (owl watching) at night with her father. It's an old-style book where the relationship between father and daughter is clearly "children listen to what their elders are saying". A lot of teaching that her father does to the girl is through how one behaves when one goes owling: listening and not talking, being brave, and so on. At the end of this learning is the reward: She sees a great horned owl. Yolen does an excellent job of atmospheric narration.

One Good Turn by Carla Kelly
Category: Traditional Regency Romance
Comments: [Content Warning: rape].

I used to think Reforming Ragsdale was the best Kelly I read, but this book surpasses it.

The Siege of Badajoz was a huge turning point in the British Allied Peninsular Wars. However, after the victory, officers turned a blind eye on the rampaging troops against innocent "enemy" women and children, who proceeded to bayonet children, rape women, and pillage houses. There was no person or building left inviolate. At the end of two days, Wellington finally stepped in to stop the inhumanity.

Our hero was one of those officers who turned his troops loose to do as they will. Our heroine was a Spanish girl of fourteen who was brutally gang-raped. They never met in Spain. The first time they meet is a few years later, when he, now a duke, finds her walking along English country roads in the rain with a child on her hip and takes up in his carriage. Where were they to go from there? In a fit of impulse, he hires her in the place of his recently-departed housekeeper and so begins a story of tears and anguish on both their parts, soul-crushing anger on her part, wrenching sorrow and aching empathy on his part, understanding on both their parts...and love. That she can love is a miracle. That she can love him, he knows is a miracle.

I cannot emphasize enough what an amazing story this is. I read it with tears crowded in my throat and awe for Kelly.