Thursday, August 9, 2018


My July Reading


Have you ever met (or seen) a person and known that you will revere them forever? That was my experience with His Holiness the 14th Dalai Lama. I saw him across a stadium from the nose-bleed section with binoculars, but it didn't matter that I wasn't within ten feet of him. The impact was just the same. That cheerful smile, those frequent chuckles, and his way of explaining things that cut right through the flattery and overuse of complex psychological mumbo-jumbo by the other guests on the stage made a profound impression on me. I have since read multiple books by him, followed his live teachings from Bodh Gaya in India, and read articles about him. He is the one person I want to meet before I die.

The Dalai Lama's Book of Wisdom
Category: Nonfiction Spiritual
Comments: I have read this little book many times over the years, and every time, I see something new that I need to think over. On the surface it would seem that a focus on happiness and compassion, love and forgiveness is simplistic and not very cerebral or revolutionary. But his teachings are not about what you should not do but more about what you should do. It is a prescription for life out of darkness into the light, which is what Buddha's teachings were about. He prefaces this little book of profundity with this humble paragraph:

"I am a Buddhist and my whole way of training is according to the Buddhist teaching. Although I speak from my own experience, I feel that no one has the right to impose his or her beliefs on another person. I will not propose to you that my way is best. The decision is up to you. If you find some point which may be suitable for you, then you can carry out experiments for yourself. If you find that it is of no use, then you can discard it."

Poetry of Walt Whitman edited by Jonathan Levin, illustrated by Jim Burke
Category: Poetry
Comments: I continued reading Whitman's poetry that I started last month. I adore the following poem; to me, it is reminiscent of Wordsworth's word painting.

O the gleesome saunter over fields and hillsides!
The leaves and flowers of the commonest weeds, the moist fresh stillness of the woods,
The exquisite smell of the earth at daybreak, and all through the forenoon.

—"A Song of Joys"

A Duke by Default by Alyssa Cole
Category: Contemporary Romance
Comments: I really liked Cole's first Reluctant Royals book, A Princess in Theory (my review is here), and this second book as well. I've enjoyed the fairytale nature of both these stories with their gleeful departure from pertinent societal rules and norms, while staying true to the characters' emotions and the integrity of storytelling. I liked the first story better than this one, because a fanciful kingdom with detailed worldbuilding but no sense of an actual place makes that leap of faith easier than a made-up town near well-known Edinburgh with actual historical landmarks like Holyrood and actual people like QEII.

The heroine in A Duke by Default is a wealthy socialite from among the upper upper crust of New York City. The hero is a medieval swordmaker in a small town of Scotland. Portia has ADHD, but it's only partway through the book that she realizes that for herself, and it was a joy to see that bone-deep relief at finally understanding herself. So far in her life (she's nearly thirty), she has internalized the constant message that she's a screw-up, she can't see things through, she's a mere social butterfly.

Tavish, on the other hand, comes from a very close, loving family, so emotionally, he is secure. He is also secure in his line of work: making swords for sale and teaching swordsmanship classes to students, but especially the struggling low-income kids. However, he does have an unknown skeleton in his closet, which Portia unearths through her marvelous sleuthing skills. His biological father was a duke and the dukedom has been in abeyance for a lack of a direct heir, however, as Portia discovers, Tavish has been the heir all along. (And here comes that big leap of faith—a bastard inheriting—among other such leaps.) My review of is here.

Wish with the Candles by Betty Neels
Tabitha in Moonlight by Betty Neels
Category: Contemporary Romance
Comments: I love Neels. Her doctor-nurse books always work for me, because she knows how to write great characters. In Wish with the Candles, British surgical nurse Emma Hastings and Dutch cardiothoracic surgeon Justin Teylingen meet in The Netherlands when she rear-ends his expensive Rolls-Royce Cornische convertible with her modest and barely-functioning Ford Popular. When they part ways, she decides to put the matter behind her. So imagine her surprise, when she returns to work at her Southampton hospital, she finds out that he is going to be a visiting professor of surgery there and that she's been assigned to his cases. In Tabitha in Moonlight, Tabitha Crawley is a nursing sister of the orthopedic ward where Marius van Beek arrives as a consulting orthopedic surgeon from The Netherlands. His sleepy and laidback manner with the patients on the ward belies his quickness and assured skillfulness in the operating room.

At work, both Emma and Tabitha are confident in their abilities, work hard and efficiently and manage their team of nursing staff with authority and compassion. Outside of work, however, they are both self-effacing, beset with doubts and allow their families to run over them. My brief reviews are here.

Forbidden Night with the Prince by Michelle Willingham
Category: Medieval Romance
Comments: This is the third book in the Warriors of the Night series of stories set in medieval Ireland. Joan has had three men die on her upon her betrothal to them. She and the others in father's castle are convinced that she is cursed. Her future lies ahead of dreary and shunned and without a family of her own. She fiercely wants to have a child of her body to mother. It is her one driving passion and dictates her actions for much of the story.

At a mutual acquaintance's castle, she meets an Irish Prince on the run, who is looking for allies to help him overthrow the usurper to his father's throne. Joan's brothers promise to loan him men-at-arms on the condition that they wed Joan. Joan, afraid for his life, refuses. Ronan has no desire to marry under duress nor does he want to ever father a child due to tragedy in his past, so tries to finagle a way to have enough fighting men at his back without having to marry Joan.

But they have a strong attraction to each other. Joan doesn't see that Ronan has much choice other than to marry her, so she wants to break the curse and prevent him from dying, and she also desperately wants a child. So with the aid of love potion from a wise woman, she seduces him...and falls pregnant. My review is here.

It takes Two to Tumble by Cat Sebastian
Category: Regency Romance
Comments: This was my second Sebastian book, and like The Lawrence Browne Affair (my review is here), I thoroughly enjoyed it. She really knows how to write emotionally-charged, tender romances, where the protagonists treat under with such care and respect that it makes for enjoyable reading. It Takes Two to Tumble is the first book for her new Seducing the Sedgwicks series about a group of siblings from a ramshackle, unconventional family featuring their father, his wife, his mistress, and various guests (read: sycophants). The eldest son, Benedict, is the vicar of the parish of St. Aelred’s in Cumberland. He is compassionate and sensitive and keenly feels the loss of a kindred companion in his life. He also wants a conventional life that he never had growing up. When a grumpy naval captain used to command takes up residence at nearby Barton Hall, sparks fly between Philip Dacre and Benedict.

Master of Grex by Joan Wolf
Category: Regency Romance
Comments: Given that this is a Joan Wolf and I have a huge collection of her traditional Regencies, I was very pleased that she was writing historicals again. But ultimately, I found this disappointing—perhaps because of my high expectations.

This book should've seen an editor, not just for copyediting issues but basic developmental editing to rein in its rambling aspects and focus it more on salient points when the narrative moved away from the protagonists to events happening around them. Many of Wolf's books have been political, which I have enjoyed, but I have always felt that the stories were tightly executed and every detail carefully chosen. This story has a long-windedness that was a letdown. The other issues I had with it were shades of colonialism, exotification of India, and also where a spot of research would've done the trick. For example, she refers to India's national language as Hindu (the religion) instead of Hindi (the language); they are not interchangeable.

Other than these issues, the marriage-of-convenience part the story was engaging. She is the daughter of an earl, brought up in gentility, but despised by her father and brother, both hardened gamblers. In a bid to get money to support their habit, they break the entail and sell their home, Grex, to a wealthy by-blow of an earl, who was brought up in poverty. She desperately wants to keep her home and restore the dilapidated structure, and he desperately wants to become Master of Grex and prove to his biological father that he was a man worth reckoning. So they marry.

Stolen Hearts by Michelle Martin
Category: Contemporary Romance
Comments: Martin has written fabulous traditional Regencies, so I was eager to see what she would do in a contemporary setting. In this book, she shows that she has a very different but just as sure of a voice.

Tess Alcott has been trained to be a jewel thief from the tender age of eleven. For a few years before that she was in a foster home, where abuse was common, but she learned to survive since she had no other recourse. She has no recollection of her early childhood and how she came to be in the foster home. While Tess has great aptitude in being a jewel thief,as she gets older, she realizes that it is wrong, and she turns herself in to the country's primary law enforcement agency. She decides to atone for her past by helping them to capture thieves and people conning innocent folks into parting with their hard-earned money.

But when the brutish, menacing thug who taught her the thieving trade makes a return, she cannot say no. He now has the ultimate job for her: Con the ancient proprietor of the most prestigious auction house in the world into thinking that Tess is her long-lost heiress granddaughter in order to steal the most fabulous necklace on the planet. However, as Tess now works for the investigators themselves, how is she going to negotiate between her two opposing roles?

When Tess goes to meet the old lady, the grande dame is outwardly sweet and welcoming, but inwardly shrewd and alert. However, her lawyer, Luke Mansfield, is openly hostile to Tess, convinced from the get-go that she is out to con her supposed grandmother. While both Tess and Luke are instantly attracted to each other, they are both just as horrified by it. After all, they're enemies. He's out to prove her to be a fraud and she's out to beguile his client into declaring her as her heiress.

As time goes on and both Luke and Tess learn more about each other and start to trust each other, they start to wonder if she is truly the lost heiress or is she an imposter who many believe is the lost heiress? No one knows for sure, but Tess and Luke are determined to uncover the truth. Can their love survive the unmasking?

I love how much of a complex Japanese puzzle box Tess is and how patient Luke is in understanding her. The mystery of Tess's true identity is very skillfully handled. Since the reader knows more than the protagonists about each other, since each character reveals details of their thoughts to the reader but not to the other character, the reader watches with bated breath: when is who going to know about what?

Firebird by Misty Copeland, illustrated by Christopher Myers
Category: Children's Picture Book
Comments: In this touching book, the world-famous ballerina, Copeland, shows a young girl how she, too, can become a ballerina, she, too, can become the Firebird, Copeland's signature role with the American Ballet Theater. Copeland's activism derives from the hope that young people will feel empowered to be whatever they want to be. To feel that they have no limits, just endless dreams that are reachable.

A little girl tells her, "You are the sky and clouds and air; your feet are swift as sunlight. Me? I am gray as rain, heavy as naptime, low as a storm pressing on rooftops. The space between you and me is longer than forever."

So Misty tells the girl that her beginning has just begun. She, too, used to be a girl with dreams. It was only through a thousand leaps and falls and blisters and torn slippers, she slowly soared higher.

"Even birds must learn to fly. Like me, you'll grow steady in grace, spread an arabesque of wings and climb. You'll become a swan, a beauty, a firebird. We'll make the moon our silver spotlight as we spin across the planets pirouetting tightly as the curls on our heads."

Alabama Spitfire: The Story of Harper Lee and "To Kill a Mockingbird by Bethany Hegedus, illustrated by Erin McGuire
Category: Children's Picture Book
Comments: Nelle Harper Lee was an adventurous girl, more at home in overalls, climbing trees, and watching her father try cases in the courtroom. But above all, she loved words and books. So when life took her in the late 1940s, from Monroeville, Alabama all the way to New York City, she wrote and revised stories every spare minute she could get. All the while, she waited for the story she was born to tell. And when it came to her, she wrote a masterpiece, helped along by a brilliant editor. The book was published in 1960 to wide acclaim, but Nelle remained an enigma to the world at large.

"You never understand a person until you consider things from his point of view...until you climb into his skin and walk around in it."
—Atticus Finch in To Kill a Mockingbird

Ganesha's Sweet Tooth by Sanjay Patel and Emily Haynes, illustrated by Sanjay Patel
Category: Children's Picture Book
Comments: Ganesha is a roly-poly Indian God with the head of an elephant and a mouse on whose back he cruises around. He loves sweets, especially laddoos, which are round balls of deliciousness. In a departure from Hindu mythology, this story says that Ganesha breaks one of his tusks on an especially giant jawbreaker of a laddoo. Mr. Mouse tries to console him that his friends will still love him, even though he looks lopsided.

Distraught, Ganesha flings his broken tusk at the moon, but it lands instead on the head of the wise Vyasa, a renowned Vedic poet, who is the composer of one of the world's longest epic poems, the Mahabharata. Vyasa explains to Ganesha how special his tooth is—it is superior to all the pens in the world. Vyasa and Ganesha come to an agreement: So long as Vyasa can continuously narrate the epic, Ganesha would continuously write; he could eat as many sweets as he wants, so long as he understands every word he is writing. And so they go on to gift history with a hundred thousand verses of one of the greatest pieces of literature.

Hot, Hot Roti for Dada-ji by F. Zia, illustrated by Ken Min
Category: Children's Picture Book
Comments: What a delightful story of the connection between a grandfather and his grandson told through the highly exaggerated and dramatized stories of his childhood. I'm glad the author included a glossary of the Hindi words used in the book; it allowed me to appreciate the story so much more. Dada-ji (grandfather) used to be a very strong boy in his childhood, and the villagers all marveled at his feat. Calls of arre waah! (well done!) rang out around the village. The reason for his power were the fluffy-puffy rotis his mother used to make for him on the hot, hot tavva (pan) and the tongue-burning spicy mango pickle she served with them. Hunh-ji! (Yes, sir!) Aneel is all fired up with his dada-ji's story, and seeing how frail he has now become, Aneel decides to make rotis for him to bring him tiger-like strength. Hunh-ji!


Tuesday, July 3, 2018


My June Reading (and Music)


It is a joy these days when I discover new authors who become favorites. I have become a jaded reader as I've gotten older and what used to entertain me then, no longer does. I examine books with an increasingly critical lens leading to a general dissatisfaction with the usual array of books being published. That is why I am particularly delighted to have come across Lucy Parker, Kelly Bowen, Katharine Ashe, Alyssa Cole, Cat Sebastian, and Elizabeth Kingston over the past year.

Music
Here are some of the highlights of my musical journey this month.
——Traditional Music by Thomas Ladonne (Democratic Republic of Congo & Republic of Congo)
——Gjallarhorn (Finnish) — I saw them a few years ago at one of the folk festivals and fell in love with their sound and with Nordic music in general
——Garmarna (Swedish) — I discovered them through a Nordic Roots Northside album of various Scandinavian groups
——Edda (Icelandic Saga) — I love Sequentia's sound and I have a few of their albums. They do authentic medieval music from all over Europe using correct pronunciations and period instruments
——Beethoven's Wig — Charming CDs of excerpts of famous classical pieces set to hilarious, irreverent words. And once you hear those words, you will never forget them; even in symphony halls where silence is paramount, you will soundlessly shake with laughter

Poetry of Walt Whitman edited by Jonathan Levin, illustrated by Jim Burke
Category: Poetry
Comments: I'm going back to my poetic roots this month with a 19th C. poet. He's American, not British, but displays the same lyricism and beautiful turns of phrase. "Song of Myself" is Whitman's first poem of his first book wherein the imagery of grass and hay is used to symbolize the never-ending process of life and death.

A child said "What is the grass" fetching it to me with full hands;
Or I guess the grass is itself a child, the produced babe of the vegetation.
And now it seems to me the beautiful uncut hair of graves.


"Pursuit of Honor" in No Dukes Allowed by Kelly Bowen
Category: Late Georgian Historical Romance
Comments: I try not to miss a Kelly Bowen, if possible, and I have not been disappointed so far. This amuse bouche of a story has Bowen's signature tenderness of romance between the protagonists. On the surface, the premise is nothing new. Childhood playmates, who correspond when away from each other, discover that they're truly in love with each other when they meet. The wrinkle in this common trope is that Oliver has been engaged to Diana's best friend since childhood on the dictates of his family and Diana had gotten married to someone much older to her on the dictates of her family. When they meet, Diana is widowed, but Oliver is still engaged, and they are head over heels in love with each other. How they untangle their encumbrances and build on their years of trust and friendship was a joy to read.

The Antagonists by Joan Wolf
Category: Regency Romance
Comments: Told in the first perspective of the heroine, Dinah, the story starts when she is eleven. The sixteen-year-old Hugh Lydin "Thorn", who has just become the Earl of Thornton, and his eleven-year-old sister, Caroline, have just become orphaned and Dinah's mother arrives at Thornton Manor in Derby to chaperone them. Dinah and Thorn instantly become antagonists. He calls her Red and she calls him many unflattering names. Even as they grow older and both mature into respectable, responsible adults, their bickering does not stop, despite remonstrances by Dinah's mother to Dinah. But when Dinah makes her come-out at eighteen and is determined to marry before the season is out so she's not a burden on Thorn, he is beset with jealously. Wolf writes childhood to adulthood romances really well, and I adore her characters. She's one of my favorite authors.

A Lady Becomes a Governess by Diane Gaston
Category: Regency Romance
Comments: The heroine is the daughter of an earl who is being forced into an arranged marriage by her step-brother to a much older baron. She only feels revulsion for him, but feeling she has no choice, she journeys across the Irish Sea to London. On the packet boat, she meets a governess who is her exact double. They are so close in looks that they exchange clothes and mannerisms with each other for a lark, and no one on the boat notices. When a ferocious storm crashes over their boat, most of the people are presumed drowned. She is saved but is assumed to be the governess, so she takes on that role to escape her marriage. Her employer, the viscount, has been left with two young nieces after the death of his parents, brother, and sister-in-law, and he comes over to check on the heroine and escort her home. Along the way they discover a deep attraction to each other.

Bed of Flowers by Erin Satie
Category: Historical Romance
Comments: This is the first book in Satie's Sweetness & Light series. The flowers in question here are orchids, the most fastidious and temperamental of flowers. The Earl of Loel is shunned in the village, because his youthful mistake caused many prosperous businesses to burn down, including Bonny Reed's father's. Loel was disinherited by the former earl and only left the entailed estates to manage. He survives by growing orchids from the world over and selling them at auction. Bonny and Loel meet again when, on am impulse, she visits him to solicit a donation of books for her circulating library. They are both extremely wary and distrustful of each other. But when Bonny accidently knocks over one of his precious orchids, she promises to visit every day to help it grow to full bloom. And so begins their journey into trust and thence into love. My review is here.

Devilish by Jo Beverley
Ransom by Julie Garwood
Category: Medieval and Georgian Historical Romance
Comments: While Devilish is the fifth book in Beverley’s famed Mallorens series, it was my first, and I was immediately captivated by the Beowulf, the Marquess of Rothgar. His mental strength, his political acumen, his business astuteness, his emotional acuity and his loyalty toward his family were instantly attractive. He does not put a foot wrong in his dealings with people, and despite this shrewdness, he is completely undone by Lady Diana, the Countess of Arradale, who is a countess in her own right. She rules her northern estate with an iron but skilled hand and is staunchly autonomous, seeking advice from none but giving succor to many.

Garwood’s Highlands’ Lairds series is much beloved by fans of medieval historicals. Ransom is the second book in the series, but it was my very first Garwood book and remains one of my favorites to this day. Bravery is not just for warriors, but also for maidens, as Lady Gillian amply shows in this book. She bravely defends a small boy from the brutality of an English baron and escapes with him to his home in the Scottish Highlands. Help comes to her in the form of Brodick, Laird of the Buchanans. He is a hard man; a skilled warrior, second to none, he is quick to anger and slow to trust, but his loyalty once given is for life. This stern man is completely undone by sweet, earnest Gillian, whose bravery he admires deeply and whose comeliness he desires wholly. My brief reviews are here.

The Highlander's Promise by Lynsay Sands
Category: Medieval Scottish Romance
Comments: This is a beauty and the beast story set in the Scottish Highlands between a laird and a gently-born lady. While the premise is not uncommon—an amnesiac heroine discovers love and passion with a strong alpha hero—the execution is poor. The characters are uninspiring and unimaginative and the interesting actions of the story are being done by others, even though the protagonists are on the page so much. The hero seems to have no sense of honor where the heroine is concerned. And he is petulant and immature to boot. I saw nothing of the leader in him in this story. He's easily led by what others say. The standard heroine—innocent in everything but hot in bed—plays out here, too, but with an even larger disparity between the two unconvincing halves of her persona than is usual for historical romances. I found her insipid and lackluster, and she behaves like a dim-witted person, easily led by the stronger women around her, and the only animation she shows is lust for the hero. My review is here.

Three Balls of Wool (Can Change the World) by Amnesty International (written by Henriqueta Cristina, illustrated by Yara Kono, translated by Lyn Miller-Lachmann)
Category: Children's Picture Book
Comments: Few books come along that catch you at the right moment that you're poised to receive them. This is one such book. Commissioned by Amnesty International for its educational programming, this is a book about immigration, about hope for a better future in the new land, hope that is destroyed by reality, and then about hope being rebuilt by forging a new identity through hard work and innovation. The message is timely in our current political climate where immigrants are being "othered" and seen as "users" of the current society/culture/benefits and not as "contributors" to a better future together. Amnesty International hopes to convey that defending and protecting the basic human rights of all people is a responsibility that belongs to all of us. (The 30 articles of The Universal Declaration of Human Rights document make for fascinating reading.)

One family with small children decides to leave their country because they see no future for their children there. "Fear! War! Prison!" these are the words the children hear their parents use and they see lines appear on the parents' foreheads. When they first arrive into their new country, they are all happier. But as the days go by, lines appear on the faces of the parents again. They had left their warm country for a country that is cold with uniformity and conformity everywhere they can see: gray shoebox buildings, brown adult clothes, and sweaters available in only solid colors of gray, green, and orange for the children.

So the mother decides to take matters into her own hands. She unravels all the wool sweaters, and reknits them into sweaters of all three colors with stripes, zigzags, diamonds, and borders on them. She sits in public parks knitting away while her children play with other children in these colorful clothes. Soon other children are curious about the clothes and soon other parents show up to parks with knitting needles. And before the mother realizes, she's started a revolution through clothing.

This story is based on the story of a Portuguese family that fled dictatorship in Portugal in the late 1960s and lived in exile in Algeria, Romania, and finally in, what is now, the Czech Republic. While the book speeds up the process of Communism to Democracy, in reality, the family only found freedom from Communism's oppressive rule in 1993.

Sakura's Cherry Blossoms by Robert Paul Weston, illustrated by Misa Saburi
Category: Children's Picture Book
Comments: A young Japanese girl named Sakura (cherry blossom) loves spending time with her obachaan (grandmother). They especially love picnicking under cherry blossom trees in the spring with family and friends. But the day comes, when Sakura has to say goodbye to her grandmother as her family journeys to America to begin a new life there.

In the beginning, Sakura struggles with learning a new language, getting used to a huge city, and making friends. She misses her grandmother terribly. Luckily, a boy next door befriends her. He teaches her to rise above her loneliness to the beauty of the sky as seen through his telescope. She, in return, teaches him to appreciate the beauty around him at ground-level.

A few months later, her grandmother falls gravely ill, and Sakura is rushed to Japan. Both she and obachaan are delighted to see each other again, but their time together is short. Sakura grieves deeply when she returns home to America. Deciding to cheer her up, her friend takes her one fine spring morning to the far reaches of the city where many cherry trees grow and gives her the gift of her homeland as they both admire those beautiful blossoms.

Not only is the story lovely and its art, but so is its craft. Each page is written as a tanka poem of five lines. The first three lines are a haiku with a pattern of 5-7-5 syllables, and the last two lines each have 7 syllables, for a total of 31 syllables in the poem. The first tanka poem was composed in the 7th C.

Bee-bim Bop! by Linda Sue Park, illustrated Ho Baek Lee
Category: Children's Picture Book
Comments: I have read Linda Sue Park's books before and I have really liked them and this one is no different. She writes with such tenderness and cultural awareness that the characters come alive for you. Bee-bim Bop is a traditional "mixed-up" Korean dish that is very popular with Koreans. The story is written in a song-like, scurrying tone of a young child as she goes with her mother grocery shopping and then watches her cook the dish. The book includes a detailed recipe with instructions on what a child can do and what a grownup can do to make the dish together.


Thursday, June 14, 2018


The 2018 Reader Survey


Discovering reader preferences, habits and attitudes — The 2018 Reader Survey is designed by authors M.K. Tod, Heather Burch, and Patricia Sands. This is fourth such reader survey organized by M.K. Tod.

Readers and writers is a symbiotic relationship. Ideas spark writers to create stories and build worlds and characters for readers’ consumption. Readers add imagination and thought to interpret those stories and deriving meaning and enjoyment in the process. A story is incomplete without both reader and writer.

What then do readers want? What constitutes a compelling story? How do men and women differ in their preferences? Where do readers find recommendations? How do readers share their book experiences?

The 2018 READER SURVEY is designed to solicit input on all these topics.

After analyzing the survey data, M.K. Tod will email the results to you if you provide an email address in the survey.

Please TAKE THE SURVEY and share the link (https://www.surveymonkey.com/r/68HL6F2) with other readers via blogs, email, and social media. Robust participation across age groups, genders, and countries will make the survey more significant.


Friday, June 1, 2018


My May Reading (and Music)


"Poems come out of wonder, not out of knowing," says Lucille Clifton, poet and children's book author. The highlight of this month's reading was a children's picture book of poems. How wonderful is that? Inspiring children from a very young age to find beauty in words and the images they paint. The paucity of words and the unique styling of a poem is a language spoken directly to you, because it has the power to touch your emotions, your heart, and your mind and change you in ways that prose cannot. I wish more children experienced this:

Desk in tidy rows
Notebooks and texts neatly stacked
New year begins soon.
Pens scratching paper
Syllables counted with care
Poets blossoming.

—"Contemporary Haiku" from Out of Wonder

Making Up by Lucy Parker
Category: Contemporary Romance
Comments: Parker's previous two books had been among the highlights of my previous reading years, so this was my most anticipated book of 2018 and it did not disappoint. Parker's style really appeals to me. It leaves me breathless with laughter at the quick, witty repartée, while enjoying the modern, mature vibe to her characters. It's a wonderful blend of lighthearted and serious. Most contemporary novels fail to achieve that balance; they tend to be, according to me, over-the-top silly or hyper.

In this story, Parker brings cosmopolitan London alive with a diverse set of characters. Beatrix “Trix” Lane, with her pink hair, is an aerial performer in London’s West End. One day, she finds out that her arch nemesis, Leo Magasiva has taken on the job of lead makeup and special effects artist for her show. Close proximity ignites fireworks, but both are convinced that they’re definitely not in a “we bicker because we want to have sex” situation. My review is here.

Rogue Hearts an anthology by Emma Barry, Suleikha Snyder, Tamsen Parker, Stacey Agdern, Kelly Maher, Amy Jo Cousins
Category: Contemporary Romances
Comments: Democracy survives in the crucible of citizens’ vigilance and energetic activism, and this anthology shares the stories of a few such individuals. This is resistance story-writing at its best. I found that Barry's, Snyder's, and Parker's stories appealed to me the best. My brief reviews are here.

Barry is such a fantastic writer. Maggie Clark is a very busy public defender living in the Montanan town she grew up in, surrounded by three generations of her family, working hard for the public good, and very content with life. And into this life walks her former debate opponent Adam Kadlick. Having abandoned corporate law and high living in Los Angeles, he has spent the past few months in his home state of Montana, trying to recruit the eight Democrat candidates whom he’s identified as the perfect fit to win their state Senate races and turn the Senate blue. He wants Maggie to run, and she doesn't want to.

Snyder's is a curious little tale. All in third-person present tense from both the protagonists’ points-of-view, it’s more a recounting of emotions and events than a showing of an unfolding story. Letitia Marie Hughes is the first African-American female vice president of the United States on the ticket with the first female president. They won the election in 2020. Keeping her protected, secure and loved is young Shahzad Ali Khan, the first Indian-American Secret Service agent. Against their parents’ instinctive cautions, Shahzad and Letty are determined to continue their loving relationship with discretion and care. Out of the blue, she proposes to him, and then comes the delicate negotiation of their dreams and hopes, their family's notions and conventions, and the country's priorities and dictates.

Parker's story is sweet, warm and engrossing. Recited in first-person present tense by Korean-American Benji Park, this inwardly insightful, but outwardly goofy, man shares his deepest thoughts and desires, fears and triumphs, hopes and dreams with readers with a frankness that is as disarming as it is charming. What I loved best about him is that he loved his mother unreservedly. Despite his rock star fame, he aspires to do something worthy of his mother’s regard. Immigration lawyer Jordan Kennedy (first-gen or second-gen immigrant citizen, I couldn't figure out which) wakes up Benji's latent desire to help undocumented immigrants. He is first seduced by her voice and most of their relationship is conducted by phone and text. Their HFN is barebones, i.e., they barely make it over the finish line. The author told me that she's thinking of fleshing this story out into a full novel. What a challenging task given that this story is out in the public sphere.

From Twinkle, with Love by Sandhya Menon
Category: Contemporary YA Romance
Comments: I really enjoyed Menon's début When Dimple Met Rishi, and I really enjoyed this story of a wallflower who comes to believe strongly in herself and claims the love of the boy who believes strongly in her. Right from the beginning, I was struck by the joy in the story. The overall impression of Twinkle is one of happiness. Twinkle is passionately in love with movies and with the idea of becoming a filmmaker, and this epistolary novel is written as a series of dated letters by Twinkle to various notable female film directors, such as Sofia Coppola, Mira Nair, Ava DuVernay and Jane Campion, among others. Her confiding honesty and emotional intensity in her diary let the reader really understand her, who she is and what drives her, her successes and her failures. My review is here.

Lady Elizabeth's Comet by Sheila Simonson
The Wagered Widow by Patricia Veryan
Category: Traditional Historical Romances
Comments: Simonson's story is written in first person, through the viewpoint of the heroine, Lady Elizabeth Conway, who is the daughter of the former Earl of Clanross. She now lives in the Dower House on the grounds of Brecon, the Clanross seat. She’s deeply dedicated to the study of astronomy and very serious in her quest to discover new celestial objects. She is aware that in marrying, she would most likely have to give up her scholarly pursuits, but loneliness drives her to accept just such a controlling man. But when the current Earl of Clanross comes to claim Brecon, she is torn between the two men. On one hand is a sure marriage; on the other, is a man who understands her passion and her personality and not only condones it, but actively supports it. Theirs is a gentle, slow romance.

This is an unusual Georgian story set in the mid-18thC. I've mostly read those set much later in the century. Rebecca Parrish is a young widowed mother living in London. She has just come out of mourning for her unlamented husband and is eager to rejoin society. This time, she wants to be sure that she chooses her own husband, but the debts left to her by her former husband means that her husband has to at least be wealthy. Torn between an extremely handsome and wealthy gentleman and a devilish rake known to be impoverished, she keeps seesawing between them. She needs to be practical even though the wealthy gentleman is unimaginative and weak, but she is of course drawn to the principled and understanding rake despite his shocking reputation. My reviews are here.

Secrets of a Wallflower by Amanda McCabe
Category: Victorian Romance
Comments: This is the first of the Debutantes in Paris series set in the late 1880s on the occasion of the Paris Exposition. At just 18, Diana dreams of being a magazine writer living on her own and covering Parisian fashion and the expo for a London ladies’ journal. She not only dreams it, but makes it happen. And on to Paris she goes. She is firmly convinced that once a lady is married, her own ideas about life are finished.

Sir William Blakely is a diplomat with the Foreign Office, whose work is shrouded in mystery. He has just returned from a stint in India, but Her Majesty's government sends him off to Paris to look into the security and diplomacy of the Prince of Wales's impromptu visit to Paris. As it so happens, William is Diana's best friend's cousin and they've met a time or two in the past. She's convinced he thinks her frivolous and he is convinced she finds him boring. They blush charmingly in each other's company. My review is here.

The Prince by Katharine Ashe
Category: Historical Romance
Comments: Simply, wow! It is written with such delicacy and subtlety, that it makes the undercurrent of sexual tension thrumming throughout the story all the more powerful. Cohabiting for most of the book doesn't mean that they fall into bed within the first few days, which is how many books would set up their relationship. They fall in love well before they give in to their lust, and they do so only when it is integral to their story. This is a slow book that gradually speeds up. Their internal black moment when it comes is truly organic to the story and inevitable. I wrote on Twitter that at 93%, the two were on different continents and I had no idea how they were going to get together again. And Ashe wisely lets two years pass by while they work to resolve their life's circumstances that eventually allows them to be together as husband and wife permanently. I highly recommend this book.

The Sheikh's Destiny by Melissa James
Category: Contemporary Category Romance
Comments: I was recommended this book when I mentioned on Twitter that I was looking for a sheikh romance where the sheikh was a real Arab and a Muslim. Both the protagonists in this are Arabic Muslims, and speak various dialects of the language and reflect on their complicated relationship with religion. There is some category sub-genre shorthands but that was to be expected and did not detract from my enjoyment of the story.

Alim El-Khanar is the sheikh of Abbas al-Din. He drives medical trucks for Doctors of Africa and delivers crucial medicines to remote villages under fire from various tribal warlords. He has specifically designed trucks that can withstand being driven over all terrain and under the stress of great speeds. In his former life, he was a race car driver and living the high life. He was also the second in line for the title Sheikh, when his older brother died. But instead of ascending to the seat of power, Alim abdicated to his young brother and gave up his racing career, because of his deep guilt over having been responsible for the death of his older brother. When the story opens, he has barely made it to the village of Shellah-Akbar in Northern Africa ahead of the men chasing him.

Quick thinking on the part of the medical professional, Hana al-Sud, saves his life thrice over: first by rescuing him from a runaway truck, then by taking care of his health, and finally by claiming him as her missing husband. She of course knows who he is; he doesn't. They're bound in this pretense of a relationship as they seek to escape the remote village to safety. They're forced to reveal closely-held secrets as their attraction deepens into love.

Out of Wonder: Poems Celebrating Poets by Kwame Alexander, Chris Colderley & Marjory Wentworth; illustrated by Ekua Holmes
Category: Poetry, Children's Picture Book
Comments: Three North American poets bring the poetry of Bashō, Rumi, Emily Dickinson, Chief Dan George, Pablo Neruda, Okot p'Bitek, Maya Angelou, Robert Frost, and many others to children by paying lyrical homage to these great poets' works. This will be an ongoing entry in my reading log for the next couple of months. Here's a snippet of a poem:

Let us celebrate Africa.
Let us adorn her with a river of gold,
proudly carry her above our shoulders like water to drink.
Let us gallantly wrap our arms around her blackness,
hold her hands in ours,
lace each glistening finger
of freedom.

—"Song of Uhuru" celebrating Okot p'Bitek by Kwame Alexander

The Living Fire by Edward Hirsch
Category: Poetry
Comments: I love Jewish American Edward Hirsch's poetry. Last month I said that I was done reading this book, but when it came time to return it to the library, I ended up renewing it instead and proceeding to read my favorite bits all over again.

Look Back! by Trish Cooke, illustrated by Caroline Binch
Category: Children's Picture Book
Comments: I really enjoyed how the book's lines are redolent with the lyricism of the main character's Dominican Caribbean roots. I'm a huge fan of onomatopoeia, so when the mysterious Ti Bolom walks "pattaps pattaps" and the girl falls "bladdaps", I was instantly connected to the story. One day, Grannie tells Christopher the story of Ti Bolom and her experience with him when she was a child. Throughout the story is the refrain "Eh Kwik!" by Grannie, answered "Eh Kwak!" by Christopher. Ti Bolom is this short creature with a long, flat foot and a big head, and when you're walking alone at night, he walks behind you. But when you turn around, he's not there. As a child, Grannie tried hard to catch a glimpse of Ti Bolom, and Christopher is fascinated by the story and dreams of doing the same.

Next Stop — Zanzibar Road! by Niki Daly
Category: Children's Picture Book
Comments: This is a delightful, rollicking chapter story of animals on a busy market day in an African village. Mama Jumbo lives at Number 7-Up Zanzibar Road, and this morning, she puts on her flippy-floppy, flappy-slippy, this-way-that-way pompom hat and takes off squashed in Mr. Motiki's rattletrap taxi along with other denizens of Zanzibar Road. The story follows her adventures at the loud, busy market. Mama Jumbo is in her element, because she loves a lively market. I had chuckles o'plenty as I read along. This is a rare chapter picture book.

Music I Listened To...

Every time I get asked the question: What type of music do you listen to? Er, eclectic is my reply. There's no other category, rhyme, or reason what appeals to me. Here's a sampling of what I listened to this month: Taraf de Haïdouks (Roma/Romany), Music of the Mountains (India), Best of Bhangara (India), Delhi 2 Dublin (bhangara from Canada), Cheb I Sabbah (Morocco), Mi Yeewnii by Baaba Maal (Senegal), Peer Gynt Suite by Edvard Grieg, Best of Pavarotti, and Spirituals by Kathleen Battle and Jesse Norman.


Tuesday, May 1, 2018


My April Reading


These days, it's a toss-up which book I will find the most fascinating in my monthly reading: an adult fiction book, poetry, or a children's picture book. This month, a picture book won out. (See the last entry of this post.) It is written with a sensitivity and even-handedness that is especially pleasing, because it takes the author out of the picture and lets the young voices tell their stories.

The Scarlet Pimpernel by Baroness Emmunska Orczy de Orci
Category: Literary Book and Movies
Comments: I'm continuing on with my experiment from March by commenting on the book, The Scarlet Pimpernel, set during the Rein of Terror of the French Revolution, and the 1934 and 1982 movies. In present day, this novel of great heroism, honor, theatricality, and tender passion would be called a romantic suspense, but given that it is a 1905 roman à clef, it is now labeled a classic.

Before I get into the story, let me just say that I now know where Georgette Heyer got her inspiration for her writing style, word choice, scene setting, character development, and plotting. All of Heyer's delightful writing is here in spades. Orczy's was the original spy nobleman, a fop cum cunning daredevil, and a master of disguises who leaves a calling card and who is capable of a passionate love. Orczy's was the original story moving at a spanking pace with glittering characters and sparkling dialogue.

A delicious tidbit: Author C.S. Harris got the name St. Cyr for the hero of her Regency mysteries from this novel. The St. Cyr family is the one Marguerite Blakeney, with republican sympathies, inadvertently sends to the guillotine, thus setting off the romantic turmoil in her marriage.

The book starts right off the bat in the first paragraph with an action scene, quite like modern novels, and the pace doesn't let up. Orczy has a brilliant way of painting her scenes so that you feel like you're observing a play in action. Given that, this must've made her and her husband's job as playwrights for the adaptation much easier. While Orczy wrote the book in 1901, it languished unpublished until 1905. In the meantime, the adapted play, written in 1903, made a big splash on the London stage, and the book, when it was released, continues to sell well even today.

While the 1934 movie is more faithful to the book as compared to the 1982 movie, I believe the former movie is quite likely faithful to the dramatized version rather than the book as such, because there are missing scenes, modifications, and additions, even though the book was written from the play. Even though I had very much liked Ian McKellen (1984) as Chauvelin, having now read the book, Raymond Massey (1934) portrayed Chauvelin more accurately. Chauvelin really is the oily, vindictive, malignant villain, and not the more debonair, subtle villain.

I loved the novel so much. So much. But I was dismayed by the rank anti-Semitism in it. Oh, you can couch it to say that in 1790s France, this was a common attitude and she's merely trying to accurately portray that, but the heavy-handed way it is written smacks of the baroness's attitude more than Chauvelin's. (In the comments to my March post, I was warned that it is there, but I had still not expected it to be this much.)

His Convenient Mistress by Elizabeth Rolls
Category: Regency Romance
Comments: He is fifty; she's thirty three; both are widowed. This is not merely a second-chance love for the hero and heroine, it's also of a story of building a family together with her two children, while being open to welcoming new additions to the family. His wife and children had died of smallpox and her husband had died of an inflammation of the lungs. He needs an heir for his marquessate, while she wants protection for her children to prevent them from being kidnapped by bitterly warring grandparents. So they decide to join forces in a marriage of convenience, but even as they assume that the other is not interested in love, they find themselves thinking of the other in affection even as they're attracted to the other right from the beginning. This is a story of passion, tenderness, and family, and altogether, lovely. "You have us and we have you."

House of Cads by Elizabeth Kingston
Category: Regency Romance
Comments: Joyful, mirthful, and lively. And quiet and angsty. Two protagonists, who're misfits in society and enmeshed in lies, come together in fascination and delight. The conflict in this story is largely internal, and Kingston does an excellent job of showing how they resolve their differences in circumstance, opinion, and outlook to life. The heroine is a vivacious French émigrée to England, very well-liked by people and popular with men. She's in London to rehabilitate her reputation and help a friend out. She runs into the hero at a ton party. He is a pamphlet illustrator whose sole aim is to sell as many papers as he possibly can to amass a fortune. So he poses as a wealthy businessman involved in the timber trade to gain entrée into the highest circles of society. This was such a refreshing sex-positive change from the usual Regencies. I highly recommend it. My review is here.

Someone to Care by Mary Balogh
Category: Regency Romance
Comments: This is the fourth book in the Westcott series and tells the story of the former, now dispossessed, Countess of Rivendale, who goes by Viola Kingsley and Marcel Lamarr, the Marquess of Dorchester. They're both in their forties with adult children. She is ruled by duty, virtue, and reputation, while he is steeped in hedonism and pleasure. They had met ten years ago and both had been fascinated with each other. But she'd been married then and had asked him to go away. Stung, he had hied off. Forward ten years, they're both fancy-free, and he urges her into an affair with him. They're found out in their love nest by both their concerned families (because of course!) and are forced into a marriage neither desires. While the Westcott series has been uneven IMO, this is a wonderful book. Balogh has done a stellar job developing their relationship from a sex-only connection to an enduring love. My review is here.

The Plumed Bonnet by Mary Balogh
The Parfit Knight by Stella Riley
Duel of Hearts by Diane Farr
Category: Regency Romance
Comments: I pulled these three stories in this piece together because I was struck by how much of an impact Georgette Heyer has had on them, whether it is in characterization or in story details or, merely, in turns of phrase and scene setting.

In Balogh's The Plumed Bonnet, we see glimpses of Sylvester from Heyer’s Sylvester in the Duke of Bridgewater. Balogh's story is a marriage of convenience resulting from a mistaken assumption. He assumes she's a lady of easy virtue based on her outfit, when, in fact, she's a virtuous governess and now a propertied lady of independent means. Only Balogh can navigate the MoC plot with such deftness and intricacy.

In Riley's Marquess of Amberley, we see shades of the Duke of Avon from These Old Shades. I loved this story. Loved. In Amberley, we see a hero of delicacy and nuance, who is capable of deep empathy and knows instinctively what is required of him in different situations. The heroine lives on an estate with only the servants for company. Due to her blindness, her loving relatives have constrained her to this gilded cage, little realizing that such a life is stifling for her. Amberley sets her free while challenging her to take risks. They're both wonderful in themselves and wonderful to each other.

And finally in Farr's story, we see Vidal from Devil's Cub in Lord Drakesley. Farr's writing shines in her book about two very similar, highly emotional characters, who argue at the drop of the hat but come from a place of deep understanding of the other and respect for the other's opinions, even when the other is driving them crazy. We usually see opposite attract stories, and this is the opposite that is convincingly executed. My brief reviews are here.

Lady Cecily and the Mysterious Mr. Gray by Janice Preston
Category: Regency Romance
Comments: I have liked Preston's books in the past, so I was looking forward to reading this. While the story on the surface is the usual noble spinster daughter falling in love with an inappropriate, but hot, man, I was taken aback by the stereotyping of the Romany people—the silent type with the all-knowing serene wisdom, who prefers to camp out in the woods on the ducal estate even though he's an invited guest. He is ultimately brought up into the society of his high-ranking father and saved by this delicate white flower. While Preston goes to some length, and has done her research, to establish Romany society and culture, the characterization of the two protagonists did not work for me. Not a book I can recommend.

The Love Coupon by Ainslie Paton
Category: Contemporary Romance
Comments: I know I am completely in the minority with a negative reaction to this book. Everywhere I have looked, people have had high praise for it, which I find inexplicable. The hyperbolic writing style with various metaphors jostling for attention made it difficult for me to get into the book. But after I'd gotten used to the writing, I was able to understand the characterization better and where Paton was going with the character arcs. However, I was horrified by how cavalierly the heroine treats the hero's views, desires, and limitations. I can understand that she wanted him to live a little and gift him with the freedom to experience living beyond the tight bounds of his worldview. But, oh, the way she goes about it. Consent is foreign to her. She pushes and pushes and pushes till she gets what she wants. When she doesn't get it, she castigates him and he is forever apologizing. When she gets what she wants, he is grateful. And there is rape by her. I could not get beyond that even after reading the whole book—despite the author's occasional sharp humor or the deft turns of phrase or the heroine's good intentions towards the hero—because this sort of behavior is a pattern for her. My review is here.

The Living Fire by Edward Hirsch
Category: Poetry
Comments: I finished reading this book that I talked about in February.

Nimoshom and his Bus by Penny Thomas, illustrated by Karen Hibbard
Category: Children's Picture Book
Comments: "Ekosi," says Nimoshom, okay, that's it, amen, says grandfather. I'm enjoying the Cree books I have been reading lately. I read Missing Nimâmâ by Melanie Florence in January. This book is about a grandfather who drives the school bus for the little Cree children. He speaks in Cree to them as he twinkles at them, makes them laugh, and gently admonishes them. And the children, in turn, loved him, and he always said, "Ekosani," thank you, to them when they brought him gifts.

A Different Pond by Bao Phi, illustrated Thi Bui
Category: Children's Picture Book
Comments: This is a book that sets up a frog in your throat from the dedication onwards that doesn't dislodge even after you read the author and illustrator bios at the end. The book is dedicated to refugees everywhere. Both Bao Phi and Thi Bui came to the US from Vietman as refugees. People in their American neighborhoods "did not understand why we were there at best, and blamed us for the aftermath of the war at worst." Both Bao and Thi were very poor as children, and their parents worked multiple jobs just to survive. A Different Pond, the story and style of illustrations, is their way of honoring their roots and the dislocation of the immigrant experience through a fictionalized version of Bao's childhood. On the surface, it's a story of a predawn fishing trip that a father takes his young son on. They're trespassing on the lake to fish for their supper. They're sometimes joined by a Hmong man or an African man. The spare prose and illustrations brilliant show the poverty and hard choices of the father and the uncomplaining quietude of the boy, who doesn't know a life different from hardship, nor the life their family left behind in Vietnam.

This is How We Do It: One Day in the Lives of Seven Kids from Around the World by Matt Lamothe
Category: Children's Picture Book
Comments: The author interviewed various kids from around the globe and then decided to choose these seven kids and their stories. His artwork and the depictions of the people are based on photographs sent in by the seven families. Lamothe's goal was to appreciate how different we all are, and yet, in so many ways how similar. Inspired by his own travels, Lamothe sought to show us how our common experiences unite us. It's a book that at once fascinates and educates. Children, especially the very young, are able to quickly discern the commonalities and the dissimilarities among the depicted kids and accept them all for who they are. This is a book to savor.

Eight-year-old Romeo "Meo" is from Condrignano, Italy with a vineyard in his backyard. Kei "Kei-chan" is nine and from Tokyo, Japan. Daphine "Abwooli" is seven and lives in a house of wood and mud in the village of Kanyaware, Uganda. Oleg "Olezhka" is an eight-year-old Russian from Uchaly, a mining town near the Ural mountains. Ananya "Anu" is from Haridwar, India along the Ganges River and is eight. Ribaldo "Pirineo" is an eleven-year-old from Los Naranjos, Peru in the Amazonian rainforest. Seven-year-old Kian is from the urban town of Gorgan, Iran near the Caspian sea.

Each of these kids describes where they live, who they live with, what they wear to school, what they eat for their three meals and who they eat with, how they get to school, their classroom experience, how they write their names, their physical extracurricular activities, how they help their families, what they do after dinner, and where they sleep all united under the night sky.


Friday, April 27, 2018


Royally Yours: A Fiction Serial Inspired by the Upcoming Royal Wedding


Inspired by the world’s most anticipated royal wedding and the movie Love, Actually, Serial Box and Rakuten Kobo will release Royally Yours, a six interconnecting episode fiction serial on May 2. Written together by the New York-based writing team comprised of Megan Frampton, K. M. Jackson, Liz Maverick, Kate McMurray, and Falguni Kothari, each of the fun and flirty episodes will be released in e-book and audio formats on Wednesdays and Fridays over three weeks (May 2–18). The first episode is free and each subsequent episode is $1.99, and the whole series is $8.99.

The Royally Yours romance stories are about the magic and joy of a royal wedding and feature a palace maid with a heart of gold, a milliner who dreams of seeing her designs adorn the pews, an American bodyguard who learns some British charm, a paparazzo after that one great shot, and an ordinary girl who dreams of being a princess.

Some Thoughts by the Authors on their Experience

Megan Frampton says...

"I have never written this way—in collaboration with four other others and according to a thoroughly-plotted story. It was a blast to just insert my words into the framework we'd created. I found my writing style changed a bit (also because I was writing contemporary, whereas I normally write historical), and I'm now thinking about trying it again at some point."

K.M.Jackson says...

"Writing this way was a new and exciting experience for me. Since what I normally do is so solitary, it was fun to collaborate with others. I imagine it gave a bit of a glimpse of what it must be like to be in a TV series writers' room, which is a secret dream of mine. Though it was a little bit of a challenge keeping the stories connected, it kept us all sharp. Keeping them short ensured that the pacing was fast."

Liz Maverick says...

"This was an amazing experience. Brainstorming with other writers is one of the pleasures of this career, but it often only comes when something has gone wrong with a story. In this case, the brainstorming was a central part of the job. I absolutely adored working in the writers' room hashing out the details of our connected story. To me, 'short' simply means that you've got to bring your best game to the collaboration. You've got to get the emotional connection, character development, plot, and connective threads to shine on the page in a nice, compact box. Since we try and do that with every book we write, it's just a matter of making every single sentence really, really count. No room for darlings, tangents, or subplots. The end result is a sparkling, fast-paced read."