Sunday, February 10, 2019

My January Reading

This month's reading roundup has been a long time coming. We've had many snow days here, which means, everyone has been at home, and I've been the default entertainment center. On to my blog post...

This month's children's books were selections sent to me by my friend in India. She's the founder of the NEEV Literature Festival for children's and young adult books and the festival's corresponding awards. The festival attendees and awardees are Indian authors, writing about Indian children, and published by Indian publishers.

"The NEEV Book Award recognises outstanding writing that leads to a fuller understanding of India, Indian lives, and Indian stories. The award spotlights stories that offer Indian children reflections of their own lives and experiences. It also invites children around the world to explore and better understand India. We hope that this award will encourage and promote Indian children's literature globally. The award winners are chosen from a shortlist of literature that illuminate a changing India. The authors give voice to India's evolving characters and the challenge her children face. An independent jury selected three books after months of deliberation, and the awards were given out on September 29 at the NEEV litfest."

See below for my thoughts on three children's picture books.

A Year with Rumi: Daily Readings translated & edited by Coleman Barks
Category: Poetry
Comments: This is going to be an ongoing read: a day-by-day poem-after-poem read throughout the year.

The Scoundrel and I by Katharine Ashe
Category: Pre-Victorian Historical Romance
Comments: Every review of an Ashe book should include: "A! Go read it!" Honestly, she writes stellar books, and this novella is no different. This is a story of a girl born of humble origins who is raised into the ton by an ardent suitor. She is truly downtrodden, dreaming of happily-ever-after while working at a low-paying job at a printing press and looking after an ailing grandmother and watching the lonely years pass on by. The hero enters into her life in a hurricane of aristocratic insouciance that changes to genuine concern and on to attentive romantic interest. He wants to lift her up to his life, but she is an independent soul who will not be bamboozled by his wealth and rank. Convincing her of allowing him to help her is a Herculean task. I liked how strong both characters are and how encouraging and supportive they are of each other. I also liked the cast of secondary characters.

The Weaver Takes a Wife by Sherri Cobb South
Category: Traditional Regency Romance
Comments: The hero is a true low class hero with a low class accent and ill-fitting, though expensive, clothes. He moves on the outer ton circles because of his vast wealth. After being bought from the workhouse to work in a cotton mill, he is raised up the chain of command to the very top through his hard work and smarts. And yet, despite his keen intelligence, he falls hard for a supercilious duke's daughter and succeeds in buying her from the duke in a marriage of convenience. How she comes to recognize his worth and he hers is a tender romance. But right to the end, the hero retains his accent and his connection to trade. He will be a tradesman and Cit all his life, but he will have the love of his high-born wife.

The Storybook Hero by Andrea Pickens
Category: Regency Romance
Comments: The hero is a wastrel to the nth degree—that is, a rake who truly behaves like a rake. He's a gambler and a promiscuous alcoholic. It took to freezing his arse off in the Russian countryside in the dead of winter to come to the realization that maaaybe, just perhaps, this was not the fastest way to put a period to his existence. Unless he wanted to eat the business end of a pistol, he was better off shaping up. And he sure cleaned up nice. The hero became a wastrel when he was unable to save his oldest brother from drowning and was then made to feel like he should've been the one to die by his family. Lovely family! Anyway. In order to jerk him out of his hellish ways, his uncle sends him off to Russia to rescue a young orphaned male relative whose life is in danger.

In the meantime, the heroine is on her way to Russia to be a governess because hard circumstances, in the guise of a vengeful, sexually-thwarted owner of the house where she works, means there is no other option open to her. She's going to be teaching a young orphaned girl. As coincidence would have it—and in romance novels, they always do—the hero and heroine meet on the boat from England to Russia. Then they part ways.

They don't meet again till chapter 8. This may bother some people who like their protagonists to be in regular contact after the meet-cute. However, to me, the strength of this book is how much time it spends in individual character-building so that when they meet again, you already know who they are. It makes their interactions all the richer, because the basics are out of the way, and the author gets into more of the complexity of the characterization. Russian winter is beautifully shown in this book. It is one of the highlights of the story.

Unmarriageable by Soniah Kamal
Category: General Fiction
Comments: This is a modern-day retelling of Jane Austen’s Pride & Prejudice set in Pakistan. It is so clever and so witty, while also being tender and heartwarming. Kamal’s writing is smart, bright, and fresh with wonderfully well-placed humor and a deep dive into contemporary Pakistani society and culture. Like a musical refrain, Kamal returns again and again to the Pride & Prejudice text to build a filigree of interconnections between it and Unmarriageable. Where the two stories march together is just as fun as when the stories diverge allowing Pakistan to shine through the fabric of the book.

Kamal’s comprehensive and thorough understanding of Austen’s Regency-era culture and social norms and those of Pakistan’s today, allows her to draw many parallels between the two—how in essence, the women have the same concerns, anxieties, triumphs, sacrifices, compromises, and limitations. Their lives are just as hemmed in today as they were two hundred years ago. Marriage is the culmination of womanhood and a woman is nothing without that status—whether she is happy in that union or not is immaterial. Like Austen, Unmarriageable is not a romance genre novel. It is a sharply observant and witty commentary on Pakistani society and culture and the myriad relationships among the people who live in it. My review is here.

Any Old Diamonds by KJ Charles
Category: Late Victorian Romance
Comments: Charles' books are near-perfection! I know you're rolling your eyes at my hyperbole, but I can't think of saying it in any other way. The juxtaposition of menace and affection, control and submission in this book are as exquisite as they are irresistible.

Lord Alexander Greville de Keppel Pyne-ffoulkes, the second son of the Duke of Ilvar, is now known simply as Mr. Alec Pyne. He has come rather down in the world and works as a lowly sketch artist for illustrated papers and books, toiling in his studio under London’s skylights. On this late Victorian June evening, he is at the Grand Cirque presumably to attend a performance, but in reality, to meet the Lilywhite Boys AKA professional jewel thieves. He wants to commission the theft of an obscenely expensive diamond parure gifted by the Duke of Ilvar to his duchess.

This is how the book starts. The story unfolds as Alec and one of the thieves embark on a relationship while setting up the heist. The story is told with Charles' characteristic precision of detail and economy of words. The details and the twists and turns—oh, there are a few of those—are too delicious to spoil. My review is here.

99 Percent Mine by Sally Thorne
Category: Contemporary Romance
Comments: Those readers who loved Sally Thorne’s début The Hating Game and expect a similar style of story told in that same authorial voice will find this second book, 99 Percent Mine, a totally different story. While I enjoyed that first book, I liked this one very much. The first book was everything writ large, whereas this novel looks inward. It is all about the inner growth of Darcy from insecurity to confidence. It is a tale of how a person can grow up surrounded by love yet feel not worthy of it. How is such a person to be convinced that not only are they deeply loved but that they can love deeply in return?

The charm of this book for me was that they are both so outwardly self-assured and capable, but within the privacy of their twosome, they feel uncertain of every step they take. They know they love, but are they loved in return? This anxiety changes as the book advances to: The other person loves me, but are they willing to be in a forever loving relationship with me, because one does not follow the other? In most books, the I-Love-Yous are immediately followed by marriage vows, but that progression is completely uncertain in this story. My review is here.

Three Little Words by Jenny Holliday
Category: Contemporary Romance
Comments: What is a relationship? And what constitutes a good relationship? There are infinite varieties of human connections, and in this book, Holiday gives her protagonists the onus and latitude to explore the depth and breadth of these two questions and how they pertain to the two of them. Gia Gallo and Bennett Buchanan are bridesmaid and best man, respectively, in their best friends’ wedding. This is the only tie they have.

Their lives couldn’t be any different. Gia is a super model with no fixed home. She lives out of a suitcase in fabulous locations all around the world — her exceptional beauty translating into wealth. Bennett is a Southern transplant to NYC with deep roots in Charleston. He is a celebrated chef serving superbly crafted Cajun food in his restaurant to high-paying and non-paying clientele. She does not know what to do with her riches; he does not know how to pay for his dream of opening a charitable restaurant. You would think that this would be the meet cute of their relationship. But nothing by Holiday is as obvious as that. My review is here.

Trailblazer by Anna Schmidt
Category: Victorian Western Romance
Comments: It is a tender, gentle tale of love blossoming between two people who’re not searching for it. Someday… oh, sure, someday, they want that special someone in their lives who will bring them joy and companionship, someone with whom they will walk side-by-side on the road of life. But at this moment in time, they are not looking for marriage. They are not even looking for love. And yet… love catches them by surprise.

Grace Rogers decides to move west to earn her living as a Harvey Girl at the Harvey Eating Houses along the Santa Fe Railroad. She is yearning for adventure away from the loneliness and poor prospects eking out a living at her family farm in Missouri. She also wants a good job that will allow her to send money back to her parents to aid their impoverished circumstances.

Nick Hopkins is a foreman at a cattle ranch in Juniper, New Mexico. He enjoys the trust and respect of his employer, but he dreams of owning his own land and his own ranch. He has been saving every penny he can so that one day he can turn his aspiration and ambition into reality. He has already staked out the land that is going to be his.

On the train from Kansas City to Juniper, Grace and Nick chance to meet. My review is here.

Our Incredible Cow by Mahasweta Devi, translated from Bengali by Devi, illustrated by Ruchi Shah
Category: Children's Picture Book
Comments: This is a cute story of a naughty cow called Nyadosh, who was a family's cow but considered herself a pet. She would boldly enter the house, and she loved to chew up and digest the children's books. One day, Nyadosh discovered the taste of fish, and she was all over it. In vain, the lady of house remonstrated with her that cows don't eat fish, but Nyadosh refused to eat her regular food. She loved chicken and developed an über-sophisticated taste for lobster and crab.

Raiding the kitchen wasn't her only misdemeanor. She loved to go to the banks of the River Ganges and push any policeman who loitered around there into the water. Nyadosh was possibly the only cow in British-ruled India to have police cases lodged against her. And so on and so forth—the story talks about all the naughty doings of this cow.

I Will Save My Land by Rinchin, illustrated by Sagar Kolwankar
Category: Children's Picture Book
Comments: This won the New Book Award 2018 and is a beautiful story of how a girl and her grandmother stand up for a woman's right to work. Little Mati loved to help her father, Ba, and grandmother, Ajji, work in their potato farm. But Ba doesn't allow Mati to do much in fear that she will spoil the crop. So Mati asks for her own plot of land to plant her own crop.

When Ba demurs, Ajji speaks up strongly in support: "How much I had to fight to keep my land. Just to plough it I had to go against the whole village. They used to laugh at me. It has taken me so long to get my rights. And now you say things like this? You, who have been brought up alone by your mother?"

Ajji went to court and fought the upper caste villagers for her farm, and now she is pleased that her granddaughter has inherited her spirit and stubbornness. Seeking advice from Ajji, Mati grew all kinds of vegetables in her successful doli-khet farm. She also attended meetings with Ajji about village politics and rich people usurping land. Great story of strong women standing against the depredations on their livelihood.

Bhimrao Ambedkar: The Boy Who Asked Why by Sowmya Rajendra, illustrated by Satwik Gade
Category: Children's Picture Book
Comments: This is the true story of one of India's famed social workers who was also a beloved teacher and respected lawyer. Little Bhim was a mahar, of the untouchable class—a shameful practice that continues to this day in this highly striated society of classes and castes. As a child, Bhim was ostracized from participating in all the ordinary activities of other children. He was not allowed to drink from the same pot or sit with the other children or plays with them. Yet, he did not allow himself to be discouraged.

He was an intelligent child, a hard worker, and kept a positive attitude. His diligence paid off, and after college, he won a scholarship to study in America. There, he finally found freedom from his caste. He could sit anywhere, drink from the same glasses, and go everywhere. But when he returned to India, the oppressive stigma of his caste pressed down upon him again. After getting a degree in law from London, Bhim returned to India determined to seek justice for his people. He worked very hard and advocated for equality among the classes. After India became independent, he became India's first Law Minister.

Tuesday, January 8, 2019

Best Books of 2018

I love reading everyone's end-of-the-year lists but I always find it agonizing to put mine together. This time to help with the process, I graded all my reading throughout the year as well as reviewed every single book on this blog, so that I would arrive at this time of the year and have some help in narrowing down which titles should go on this list, which were middling, and which would be best forgotten. I have organized this post into sections. The first is romance, followed by poetry, then general fiction, nonfiction, and finally, children's picture books.


My list is posted on All About Romance and includes these books:
A Princess in Theory by Alyssa Cole
A Duke in the Night by Kelly Bowen
The Sins of Lord Lockwood by Meredith Duran
Making Up by Lucy Parker
From Twinkle, with Love by Sandhya Menon
The Prince by Katharine Ashe
Untouchable by Talia Hibbert
Not Another Family Wedding by Jackie Lau
Band Sinister by KJ Charles
My One and Only Duke by Grace Burrowes


The Living Fire by Edward Hirsch
Over the years, I have loved reading and re-reading Hirsch's poetry collection Special Orders. It's a treasured volume in my personal library, so I decided to try out more of Hirsch's work. I'll continue to read from it a little at a time over the next few months. Lately, I have been plagued by insomnia, so this really spoke to me: Silently / you confront the blue-rimmed edge / of outer dark / denied warmth, denied rest, / denied earth's sleep and granite.

Poems by Donald Hall
I discovered him when a friend of mine brought his obituary to my attention. I enjoyed that obituary very much; it reminded me of The Year of Magical Thinking by Joan Didion, which I love. He was considered a major American poet. What I like best about his poems which I have explored so far is that he examines a more bucolic past with a reverence for nature, which is what has always drawn me to the Romantic poets. He is compared to poet Robert Bly—Mary Bly AKA Eloisa James's father—whom he met at Harvard. His academic credentials are every student's dream: Philips Exeter, Harvard, Oxford, Stanford. Given my love for Didion's memoir of her marriage, I should read Hall's memoir of his marriage as well: The Best Day The Worst Day: Life with Jane Kenyon.

Poems by Chinua Achebe
He was a Nigerian poet, novelist, and critic. I have had Achebe on my radar ever since he won the Booker, but it finally took my pursuit of different poets for me to run across his work. What I liked best about his work is his use of expressive language to persuade and convince the reader of his ideas. Like an onomatopoeia is a word where the meaning and the sound are closely related, his poetry is like that: the words and the images they paint are symbiotic.


Ghachar Ghochar by Vivek Shanbhag, translated by Srinath Perur
I cannot praise this highly enough. The original story is in Kannada (one of the languages of southwestern India) and is set in Bangalore. It is told by an aimless, shiftless young man who resides in a complex, interdependent, joint family situation with his parents, wife, sister, and uncle. The uncle runs his own spice trading business, which has become quite profitable, and is the sole earner of the family. The family, in turn, caters to his every want and desire, even before he realizes he needs it. The story starts with them living in a modest lower-middle-class house and then moving up to a fancy two-storey house. Once prosperity enters their house, so do untold troubles. Shanbhag does a masterful job of teasing out the turmoil in this tightly psychological novella through his protagonist's observations, actions, and reactions.

The Ones Who Walk Away from Omelas by Ursula Le Guin
She Unnames Them by Ursula Le Guin
Omelas is simply brilliant. I have nothing else to say about it. The background of She Unnames Them is the Biblical book of Genesis, in which Adam names the animals, but Le Guin subverts this by having Eve unname the animals. The story is in two parts: one part describes how the animals feel about the unnaming and the second part describes how the narrator (Eve) feels about the unnaming. Is there any form of writing that Le Guin does not excel at?


Becoming by Michelle Obama
Who doesn't love Michelle Obama? I had this book pre-ordered since it was announced in March. I wish, wish, wish she'd come to my town during her book tour, but it was not meant to be. A local private school has a one word mission: Becoming. It is exactly like Michelle says, "It's one of th most useless questions as adult can ask a child—What do you want to be when you grow up? As if growing up is finite. As if at some point you become something and that's the end." Michelle is the epitome of someone who has reinvented herself over and over again as her life has changed around her. She's adapted and thrived with grace and drive in every situation. We only see that she has it all; in this book we see how hard she has worked for it. This eminently readable book for the teens as well as the octogenarians, it is the story of a remarkable woman who is still in the process of "becoming." It has made me fall in love with her even more.

West Wingers: Stories from the Dream Chasers, Change Makers, and Hope Creators Inside the Obama White House edited by Gautam Raghavan
This book is a treasure for the stories written within and for how I came about it. I was gifted a signed copy of it by the Raghavan's mother. In turn, I gifted one of my favorite books (mentioned above): Edward Hirsch's Living Fire. In West Wingers, eighteen Obama staffers tell their stories of how they fought doggedly for their ideals and how in Obama they found a president willing to listen, to be educated, and to act. This book gives a glimpse into a dynamic White House where some of history's pivotal events unfolded through people's passion.

Man's Search for Meaning by Viktor E. Frankl, foreword Harold S. Kushner, afterword William J. Winslade
The Dalai Lama posits that the primary human drive is happiness, whereas Frankl's theory is that it is the pursuit of something meaningful. in his book, he argues that while we cannot avoid suffering, how we cope with it allows us to find meaning in it and allows us to move forward. That he discovered this through his experience in the Nazi death camps is remarkable. Frankl's logotherapy concept was later (in 1998) echoed by Kathleen Norris in her Quotidian Mysteries: Laundry, Liturgy, and "Women's Work", wherein she says that even the daily routine chores can bring meaning to one's life. While Norris' book was an easy read in 2016, Frankl's book will need multiple re-readings to digest it.

You Can Heal Your Life by Louise Hay
This is an easy-to-read book that nevertheless delivers a series of messages that I was in the right frame of mind to receive. Here are the main philosophical points of her book:
1. We are each responsible for all of our experiences.
2. Every thought we think is creating our future.
3. The point of power is always in the present moment.
4. Resentment, criticism, and guilt are the most damaging patterns.
5. The bottom line for everyone is: "I'm not good enough." It's only a thought, and a thought can be changed.
6. Self-approval and self-acceptance in the now are the keys to positive changes When we really love ourselves, everything in our life works.

Medieval Illumination: Manuscript Art in England and France 700-1200 by Kathleen Doyle & Charlotte Denoël
A few years ago, thanks to the plethora of massive open online courses (MOOCs), I was very fortunate to be able to take classes about medieval manuscripts from Stanford, Cambridge, and Harvard. My passion for illuminated manuscripts continues unabated to this day, so I was very excited when the British Library put out a book based on their collections. It is a fully illustrated book, with an image of the recto or verso side of a manuscript page on one side and a description on the other with historical details, translation of the text, and other fascinating tidbits. I love my book and leaf through it often.


Missing Nimâmâ by Melanie Florence, illustrated by François Thisdale
This is a Cree story. Kateri is a young girl living with her nokhôm (grandmother) whose nimâmâ (mother) is lost. Despite the love and care, her grandmother shows her kamâmakos (little butterfly), Kateri talks about her mother and dreams about her all the time. I cried as I read this book, cried for its beauty and its tragedy. This fictional story is based on true fact. There are many , and this has devastating effects on their families and their children who are left behind. Many Canadian women of First Nations who will never return home because they are missing or have been murdered with no justice for their families and no repercussions to the perpetrators. If you would like to find out about this growing problem of the lost indigenous women of Canada, visit the No More Stolen Sisters site at Amnesty International.

The True Story of Balto: The Bravest Dog Ever by Natalie Standiford, illustrated by Donald Cook
I love books that get me in the feels as well as the kids. There's nothing like rooting for a character, being awed by them, and then feeling a sense of pride in them when the story is over. Balto was one such dog. The story is set in a frontier town amidst the ice and snow of Alaska of 1925. In the winter, there was no way to travel in that region except by dog sled. Neither planes, nor trains, nor boats, nor cars could work in those snow drifts and iced over lakes. A year after Balto's great feat of bravery, endurance, and leadership, New York City erected a statue of Balto in Central Park, which stands to this day. This is a true story.

A Different Pond by Bao Phi, illustrated by Thi Bui
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 U.S. 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. The story and the 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.

This is How We Do It: One Day in the Lives of Seven Kids from Around the World by Matt Lamothe
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.

Three Balls of Wool (Can Change the World) by Amnesty International (written by Henriqueta Cristina, illustrated by Yara Kono, translated by Lyn Miller-Lachmann)
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, 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.)

Tuesday, January 1, 2019

Happy New Year!

Wishing you, dear readers, a very happy new year! May this year bring you peace and joy and many successes. I want to thank each and every one of you from the bottom of my heart for continuing to read my blog. Blog readership has been going down everywhere, and while my blog is a very small one, my readership numbers have grown this past year. I appreciate you making the time out of your busy lives to read about my bookish adventures. I will continue to write brief reviews here of all the books I read and about my various bookish adventures.

Monday, December 31, 2018

My December Reading

The end of December snuck up on me very quickly, and I didn't get as much read as I'd hoped to. Due to USA Today Happy Ever After's shutdown news, I lacked motivation to read at the beginning of the month. Then I bucked up, because I had eight reviews promised for this month that I was going to honor, bad news or not.

I have good news as well to tell. Within a week of HEA's news, I was incredibly lucky to secure a weekly writing stint with Frolic. Here's some information about them by Fast Company.

Tikka Chance on Me by Suleikha Snyder
A Christmas Proposition by Jessica Lemon
Merrily Ever After by Jenny Holliday
Category: Contemporary Romance
Comments: Snyder is a writer whose short works I never miss, because each is a memorable moment in time. Tikka is a short novella that feels like a novel in the expansiveness of the storyline and complexity of characterization. It is a story between an Indian American girl from a traditional immigrant family who falls in with a leader of the local motorcycle gang. Is he a brutal criminal or a funny, warm-hearted man of high morals? Snyder keeps us guessing even as she show how they're falling under each other's spells.

This is a modern-day fairy tale where the princess is the billionaire and the prince the hired help. It is also a modern marriage-of-convenience that both end up wanting to make into a real marriage. She is a light-hearted party girl who loves Christmas. He is a serious leader of the security detail to billionaires. Lemmon skillfully shows how these two people from such disparate backgrounds can figure out how to bridge their lifestyles and build a partnership of equals.

I loved this novella. Some authors excel no matter the format, short, long and all sizes in between—Holiday is one such author. This book is a curious one. The protagonists fell in love in Once Upon a Bride, got married in One and Only, but in Merrily Ever After, their marriage hits a big snag. Will it sunder their marriage? He is adamantly sure that he does not want children. That is why she's perfect for him because due to health reasons she cannot have children. But then the unexpected happens. She gets pregnant. And she wants to keep the baby. Where are they to go from here? My reviews are here.

The Earl I Ruined by Scarlett Peckham
The Uncompromising Lord Flint by Virginia Heath
Category: Historical Romance
Comments: In both of these books the heroes struggle mightily to learn that love involves trust and respect in spite of unpalatable facts staring you in the face about the object of your fascination. It involves forgiving the other person and believing in them, because you're innately convinced that they're what they're telling and showing you they are. It is forsaking all others and being faithful—in body and mind—to the other.

Heath is such a wonderful historical writer who truly understands the history and socio-cultural mores of the time period. King and Country before romantic interest. Should an agent for the Crown give in to his attraction to a traitor? Never! He had learned that lesson painfully once before, when he'd succumbed to the urges of his body, his heart overruling his head, and then she'd betrayed him. Now he is again in the same situation. Faced with a bewitching woman England wants to try and hang for her crimes, he nevertheless finds her enchanting. Will he compromise his ideals for her or will he remain stalwart?

This second book in the Secrets of Charlotte Street series is moody, intense, and superb. The contrast between the lightness and innocence of the heroine and the artistic erotic knowledge of the hero is exquisite. His sensual mastery wars with his love for her while her breezy insouciance infuriates him: How is he to manage her? Should he? She is tantalized by his unconventional carnal knowledge. He cannot trust her because instead of noticing her generous heart, he concludes that she manipulates people to suit her purposes. They're both secretly in love with each other. Where does trust and respect figure in their relationship? My reviews are here.

Their Perfect Melody by Priscilla Olivieras
Category: Contemporary Romance
Comments: In this third book of the series, Olivieras has crafted an absolutely delightful story of how opposites attract and repel but end up being perfect for each other. On the surface, there is no way these two people could see eye-to-eye about anything. Their constant struggles to understand the other person and to make them understand themselves seem endless and purposeless. What is even the point? And and a passionate investment in the community's youth breaches the divide to unite them. Family is a theme Olivieras returns to again and again in this story and that is at the heart of what makes this story so heartfelt and true. Both characters are loyal sand strongly connected to their families and seeing this in the other makes them feel kindly towards each other. It is as if, a person at one with their family is an inherently good person. My review is here.

The Mysterious Heir by Edith Layton
The Seventh Suitor by Laura Matthews
Category: Historical Romance
Comments: Whenever I open an Edith Layton novel, I know I’m going to be rewarded with a complex, unusual story, and this one was no different. And with Layton it is not just that her characters and plots are notable, but so is her prose and how she expresses herself. I always enjoy books where the romance starts as friendship and slowly deepens into love. All those shifting emotions, from the heights of joy to the depths of despair, laid bare for the reader to care about. The hero desperately needs an heir so he invites three of his relatives to his country house to choose among them. The heroine is the sister of one of them. Neither thinks they’re marriageable: he, too scarred by experience, and she, by dint of her dowerless, lowly status. And in spite of this, they strike up a tenuous friendship.

This is an early traditional Regency by Laura Matthews from the 1970s. Unlike some of her other fast-paced novels, this is a slow-developing story that is as much a tale about familial relationships as it is about the romantic connection. But the romantic arc is fully realized from disgrace to grace for both of them, deeply felt while avoiding histrionics. In the beginning, every time the hero and heroine meet, sparks fly; neither can see the good in the other. She thinks he’s a stiff-rumped, self-consequential prig; he thinks she lacks morals. Neither can see eye-to-eye about anything. Matthews really know how to allow her characters to dig deep inside themselves and examine their emotions. Life goes on around them as they realize that the other person is worthy of notice and consideration and deeper, warmer feelings. My reviews are here.

Sunday, December 9, 2018

My November Reading

All this year, I've bemoaned the lack of time in my reading schedule to include nonfiction. So this month, I decided to choose a small stack of them and read a little bit through each book every night. And I've been making leisurely progress through the books and enjoying my time with them immensely.

The brief romance reviews are first, followed by the nonfiction and poetry. Alas, there were no noteworthy children's picture books this month.

Stranger Within the Gates by Mira Stables
The Counterfeit Betrothal by April Kihlstrom
Category: Traditional Regency Romances
Comments: The Stranger was interesting in that it was a much slower-paced romance than I'm used to with parts of the story devoted to relationships of the protagonists with other people. However, despite the characters not being together in those moments, their thoughts about each other allow their awareness of the other to simmer. I liked how close they become as friends before attraction overwhelms them. It's stories like these where they "like" each other first and temper each other's excesses and assumptions that convince me of the solidity of their HEA.

The Betrothal was a delight from beginning to the end and laugh-out-loud funny in parts. It's a Heyer-esque complex plot where the main characters and supporting cast are earnestly involved in hoodwinking the other characters and bending over backwards to support each other but creating more complications with their underlying assumption that makes for a pretzel-like hilarious plot. My reviews are here.

An Affair of the Heart by Joan Smith
Category: Traditional Regency Romance
Comments: The Marquis of Claymore has been rejected by the Diamond of the First Water and with rumors circulating of his ignominy, he hies off to the country to marry the younger of the Wanderley twins. Turns out, the younger one is promised elsewhere, so he turns to the older one. Pragmatic and a tiny bit flattered, she accepts him. A few days in each other's company, and both are convinced they love the other, but do not want to admit it. At one point, I put the book down as a DNF, but curiosity made me pick it up to the finish line. I was annoyed not by the heroine's insecurity but by her impetuous actions stemming from this. The long-suffering hero's patience through it all made me think well of him, but his denseness in recognizing the cause of her insecurity was tiresome. In general, a frank conversation before sealing their marriage of convenience would've gone a long way to shortening their agony, but then that would've made for a very short story.

A Scandalous Winter Evening by Marguerite Kaye
Category: Regency Romance
Comments: This was an 'A' read for me as has been the entire Matches in Scandal series. This is the last book and reveals the mysterious figure who is the driving force behind all the other books in the series. The protagonists had met more than six years ago and had shared a passionate night before departing. Little did they know their paths would cross again. When they meet, they are just as fascinated with each other, almost against their will. They are both harboring secrets that they're at pains to keep from the other, but developing emotional ties in relationships have a way of sundering restrictions keeping them apart. What is more natural than to trust the other person a little at a time? Kaye's strength as a writer: setting up a plot and characters shrouded in mystery, and then revealing them with increasing complexity as the story moves on. This sounds like a case of "water is wet," but not every author does this as successfully as Kaye. My review is here.

Cadenza by Stella Riley
Category: Georgian Romance
Comments: It's a two-relationship book but one thread of the story didn't work for me, because the heroine is so impulsive and entitled and self-absorbed, I felt sorry for her hero. However, the other thread of the story is wonderful, and the heroine is wonderful—caring, compassionate, mature—I would've liked her for both the sensitive heroes who're vulnerable and feel that society cannot accept them the way they are. The heroes' story arc is how they gain confidence in taking their rightful place in the ton. The writing is very good and the period details (aside from certain eye-roll things) are good. The first heroine, however, sank the book for me. I'm in the minority though. Read the comments below my review to view others' comments. My review is here.

My One and Only Duke by Grace Burrowes
The Other Miss Bridgerton by Julia Quinn
Category: Regency Romances
Comments: The Quinn story is in its signature Bridgertons style: witty, light-hearted, tender, and romantic. Their relationship develops through forced proximity aboard a ship through neither of their faults. But despite this, they do not live for the week in simmering resentment. They're mature and decide that constant angst is not going to get them to their destination faster but only make it unpleasant. So they set the negative feelings aside and realize how much they have in common with each other. The story has a tightly-knit plot and the developing relationship is well done.

The Burrowes story was fabulous. It made me cry and cheer and read the story with bated breath. Excellently plotted with characters that are multi-layered and real. That latter was the selling point of the book. Their marriage of convenience begins at the very bottom of the relationship and through a commitment to marriage no matter the hurdles life throws at them, they show how rewarding loyalty and trust are in bettering their current circumstances. My reviews are here.

Becoming by Michelle Obama
Category: Memoir
Comments: I have adored Michelle Obama since she came on my radar during Barack Obama's presidential campaign. As her memoir shows, she's a remarkable woman: driven, humble, brilliant, and compassionate. Coming from an under-privileged background, her successes are a testament to her hard work and singular focus. She's a role model for our teens and young women.

West Wingers: Stories from the Dream Chasers, Change Makers, and Hope Creators Inside the Obama White House edited by Gautam Raghavan
Category: Narrative Nonfiction
Comments: A book about real stories of events inside Obama's White House told by his staffers? Sign me up. What a great book! And I'm thoroughly indulging my nosy self in knowing what really went on behind doors.

You Can Heal Your Life by Louise Hay
Category: Spiritual Nonfiction
Comments: This is an easy-to-read book that nevertheless delivers a series of messages that I am in the right frame of mind to receive. I continued reading this from last month.

Man's Search for Meaning by Viktor E. Frankl, foreword Harold S. Kushner, afterword William J. Winslade
Category: Spiritual Nonfiction
Comments: This is another book whose message in my life is timely. While on the surface, I seem to have received its teachings, I believe I will be served best by delving further into it. Frankl's experiences in the Nazi death camps led him to developing his theory that the essential drive for life is finding meaning in doing something. There were parts of the book where he failed to convince me, but I kept going back to the first part about his horrific experiences that led him to his conclusions. I need to read this dense book a few times.

Medieval Illumination: Medieval Art in England and France 700-1200 by Kathleen Doyle and Charlotte Denoël
Category: Illustrated Nonfiction
Comments: One of the best things about Twitter are all the medieval historians I follow. Every day, they tweet some funny tidbit or a snippet of an illuminated manuscript. I am utterly fascinated by the talent, expertise, and exactitude of the scribes' renditions. In front of those beautiful uniform lettering, my handwriting looks like chicken scratch. This book by the British Library has one illustration on a facing page and a description on the other page. It is a fascinating look at some of the English and French manuscripts.

The World Will Follow Joy: Turning Madness into Flowers by Alice Walker
Category: Poetry
Comments: I continued on my journey through this book from last month.

Friday, November 9, 2018

My October Reading (and Music)

When our very favorite writers have passed on, we always fantasize: WHAT IF they had left an unpublished manuscript behind. Wouldn't it be marvelous to read one more book by them? Well, that is exactly what happened this year. In January, Michael di Capua Books published a forgotten children's picture book with Maurice Sendak's original pictures and collaboration on a story with his friend of many years. Maurice Sendak! What a rare gift to his fans! (See below for more about the book and the story behind the book.)

In addition to the usual romance fiction and children's picture books this month, I read some poetry, some nonfiction, and a curious little book published in India in 1987. The romance novels are at the top followed by the rest of the books.

A Very Proper Widow by Laura Matthews
The Golden Songbird by Sheila Walsh
Category: Traditional Historical Romance
Comments: In A Very Proper Widow, Vanessa Damery is holding Cutsdean Hall in trust for her young son. James Damery, the fourth Earl of Alvescott, is the co-trustee and her son’s godfather, but he has neglected the estate forcing Vanessa to step in. When he finally visits, he finds that she politely but insistently challenges his sense of consequence due to him, but instead of getting offended, Alvescott works through his ego and tries to understand her point-of-view. This book has it all: tenderness, trust, vulnerability, maturity, respect, consent, loyalty, and wit.

In The Golden Songbird, the fourth Marquis of Mandersely wins Lucia Mannering in a wager. But instead of cringing in front of him in abject despair, she flings herself at him in a desperate bid to leave her house with him. Her stepfather is grooming her to be a wealthy nobleman’s plaything, and despairing, she is determined to have complete say in her future. The two do not get along at the outset—the way they are thrown together by the circumstances lends itself to uncomfortable interactions. Combine that with an attraction, and neither knows how to handle it. Luckily, his aunt is there to lend them her support. My reviews are here.

Band Sinister by KJ Charles
Category: m/m Regency Romance
Comments: This book was simply perfect—one of the best I've read this year. This story is a masterclass in consent: what it means, what its scope should be and how it should be employed in a relationship. The book is a classic tale of a world-weary rake meeting a country provincial, but shows how a true romance blossoms through care, attention, and patience...and trust. Charles also skillfully shows how social class, race, and religion in the early 19th-century society affect each character in the story differently and how they each navigate its pitfalls and joys. My review is here.

A Timeless Christmas by Alexis Stanton
Category: Time Travel Romance
Comments: This is a time-travel tale set in 1902 and 2018. Megan Turner has been working as a tour guide of the Whitley-Moran Mansion by impersonating Rosie, the housekeeper, along with other reenactors. The mansion was built by Charles Whitley in 1902. A self-made man and brilliant inventor and entrepreneur, Charles grew up poor and acquired vast wealth and influence through determination and hard work. Just when the actor playing the role of Whitley quits the museum, Charles time travels to the present. Megan had always been fascinated by Charles and half in love with his portrait. Seeing the real flesh-n-blood person has a devastating effect on her senses. In the meantime, Charles is overwhelmed with modern conveniences, but his innovator mind is busy making sense, while Megan is scrambling his emotions. My review is here.

Love Rekindled at Christmas by Eve Pendle, Elizabeth Keysian, E. Elizabeth Watson, Evelyn Isaacks, Diana Lloyd
Category: Historical Romance Anthology
Comments: This is a charity anthology with all proceeds being donated to Planned Parenthood. My reviews are here. There are some common themes across the five stories: Christmas, second-chance love, the Regency era, the parlor game Snapdragon, and a medium heat level. Here are two of the stories:

In A Pineapple in a Pine Tree by Eve Pendle, the young teenage couple were separated by misunderstandings. When they meet again, they're plagued with questions about what really happened then, had the other truly cared for them, and whether they care for them now, even as they realize that they're still attracted to each other and are getting to know each other better. Compounding this is that his wife died in childbirth, and he has made a vow not to make love to another woman to avoid the risk of her dying. What I liked about it is how the author made them work through the solution in a mature fashion rather than resolving it herself.

Christmas Wore Plaid by E. Elizabeth Watson is another story of trust. Scarlet fever tore the teen courting couple apart and machinations of relatives kept them apart. Now, she's a wealthy, sophisticated woman, whereas he is an impecunious laird. Even as they discover that their love for each other is unchanged, he is filled with despair. What can he offer her? But she is likewise filled with determination. She has a lot to offer him. And they could help each other achieve their goals, which are not so far apart, if only he'll allow her to make him happy. Like the above story, the author allows her characters to arrive at the solution on their own.

This Month's Music
This month, my car was dominated by repeated demands to listen to Panic! At The Disco and Ariana Grande...over and over and over again till the tunes and words were etched in my brain and...wonder of wonders...I began to enjoy them, so much so, that I may have even played them in the car even when the Demanders were not in it.

Tales from Hitopdesa translated and adapted by Asha Bhalekar
Category: Children's Folktales
Comments: Written centuries ago, these tales are from the great Sanskrit classic Hitopdesha. Bhalekar has adapted some of the stories for younger readers. Each story involves either anthropomorphic animals or people and animals and usually has a moral in the end. They're such heartwarming stories that they would appeal to adults as well as children. Here's one of them:

The Ghost Bell is a story of the error of making false assumptions. One day, a brazier, a maker of metal bells, is walking through the forest when a lion kills him. His bell is left lying on the forest floor. A group of monkeys are delighted with their find and hang it on a tall tree and ring it whenever they pleased. When the nearby villagers hear the bell at night, they become nervous. They are sure it is a ghost. So they stop sending their livestock to graze in the forest and live in fear of being killed. One day, a frail, old woman says that she'll get to the bottom of this. Everyone laughs at her, but she is insistent.

One early morning, off she goes to the forest with freshly-roasted peanuts. She heads straight to the place where the bell is ringing. When the woman comes upon the group of monkeys ringing the bell, she leaves the peanuts scattered on the grounds and quietly climbs up the neighboring tea. When the monkeys scramble down to eat the peanuts, she snatches the bell and throws it into the nearby river. Then she goes home and tells the head of the village that she has solved the problem. When the bell no longer rings, everyone praises her bravery to the skies and gives her a large reward for her bravery. And she lives happily ever after.

The World Will Follow Joy: Turning Madness into Flowers by Alice Walker
Category: Poetry
Comments: I was privileged to attend a talk by Alice Walker earlier this month. (My notes on the lecture are at this link.) I have been reading some more of her The World Will Follow Joy. "Hope" is such a poem for our times. It talks about coveting what other people have, of seizing what belongs to others by force and enjoying what they enjoyed before while they now suffer. It is a poem of privilege and entitlement.

Hope never to believe / this robbery / will make you a better / citizen of your new / country / as you unfurl and wave / its recent / flag / that has been given / to assure you / of this impossibility.

You Can Heal Your Life by Louise Hay
Category: Spiritual Nonfiction
Comments: This is going to be an ongoing book as I read it slowly and try to understand what it is she is really trying to say. There are exercises in the book as well, but in this first readthrough, I'm just going to be reading. I'll do the exercises the second time through. Hay is a psychologist, whose advice has energized millions of people, particularly women. I'm at the stage in my life where I find myself struggling with definite areas of myself that need intentional work. So I decided to pick up this book on a recommendation of a close friend.

Each chapter opens with an affirmation that Hay suggests you use when you're working on that area of your life. She also suggests that you take two to four days to study and work with each chapter. Keep saying and writing the affirmation that opens the chapter. The chapters close with a treatment, which is a flow of positive ideas designed to change your thought patterns. Hay recommends reading over this treatment several times a day for a few days following the end of the chapter.

Some of her philosophical points:
1. We are each responsible for all of our experiences.
2. Every thought we think is creating our future.
3. The point of power is always in the present moment.
4. Resentment, criticism, and guilt are the most damaging patterns.
5. The bottom line for everyone is: "I'm not good enough." It's only a thought, and a thought can be changed.
6. Self-approval and self-acceptance in the now are the keys to positive changes When we really love ourselves, everything in our life works.

Beyond Birds & Bees: Bringing Home a New Message to Our Kids about Sex. Love, and Equality by Bonnie J. Rough
Category: Nonfiction
Comments: All schools have a mandatory health class in middle school and high school. However, what I realized is that all they were doing was telling kids what they should NOT do, not what they should/could do. It was all about telling them all the wrong about relationships and social situations that they need to watch out for—it's about inducing guilt. However, in addition to showing this, I would've liked them to show what are good relationships and what are the positives they should seek—it's about showing them joy. "Don't do bad" is fine. But also teach "do this good." That is why when I found out about Beyond Birds & Bees, I was immediately fascinated. In this book, through personal experiences, the author is writing about how the Dutch approach sexuality in a relaxed, matter-of-fact manner that conveys the normalcy of it as well as how good it feels. The arc of the book is to show how these attitudes leads to better health and success of young adults, eventually leading to gender parity.

The Day War Came by Nicola Davies, illustrated by Rebecca Cobb, in association with Help Refugees
Category: Children's Picture Book
Comments: This is a story of how a day that began in all innocence in an elementary classroom was turned into a war zone by lunchtime. The child's home was a black hole and her family nowhere to be found. The war had taken everything...leaving her to set off alone, joining strangers on a journey to who knows where and to what lies ahead. Despite reaching a refugee camp safely, war had followed her everywhere on her journey; it had taken possession of her very heart. And if you think this is heartrending enough, picture what happens next to this little girl as door after door in the town shuts to her, where she is shunned, and denied a chair at a school filled with laughing children. Until...some brave, kind children come to the refugee camp with chairs for her and the other kids.

NGO Help Refugees says that out of the world's 22.5 million refugees, more than half are children. In the spring of 2016, the UK government refused to give sanctuary to 3000 unaccompanied child refugees. In reaction to that, Davies wrote this poem published in the Guardian. It caught fire on social media under the hashtags #ChooseLove and #3000Chairs accompanied by pictures of empty chairs. This book was published this year.

Presto & Zesto in Limboland by Arthur Yorinks & Maurice Sendak
Category: Children's Picture Book
Comments: Before I get into the story behind the story, let me tell you a bit about this silly, entertaining story. Presto and Zesto while searching for cake end up in Limboland. The only way they can get out of Limboland is by attending the wedding of two sugar beets where they will be cake. The only way they can attend the wedding is by stealing the wedding gift from the monster of Limboland.

Forty-eight years ago, Sendak and Yorinks met over cake and sealed they friendship over a mutual love of music, words, and pictures. In 1990, Sendak was asked to provide projections for Janacek's Rikadla, a composition that sets a series of nursey rhymes to music. Then he put the pictures in a drawer and forgot about them. Then in 2000, he and Yorinks met in his studio and the subject of the Sugar Beets pictures came up and they decided then and there to convert them into a picture book. So they arranged them in order and began riffing on a story that might turn these disparate pictures into a coherent story. And in so doing, laughed themselves silly. The book then lay hidden and misfiled until it was resurrected recently and published in January. What a gift to readers!

Bees: A Honeyed History illustrated by Piotr Socha, text by Wojciech Grajkowski, translated from Polish by Agnes Monod-Gayraud
Category: Children's Picture Book
Comments: Did you know, honey bees have existed for at least a hundred million years? Fossilized evidence in amber has given truth to this supposition. And thus begins this huge picture book on bees accompanied by gorgeous and very colorful illustrations. While the information is clearly aimed at upper elementary children, the illustrations will please preschoolers. This book is narrative nonfiction at its best: informative, entertaining, and appealing. From the biology of the bees to the danger environment poses to bees to the usefulness of bees to humans (and Greek gods) to human-made decorative hives for the bees to digestible fun party tidbits about bees, this giant book would make a fantastic addition to your home library—for the sticker price of a hardcover book, your child is guaranteed more than one school project. Why even Napoléon thought very highly of bees and made them a symbol of France.