Friday, July 3, 2020

My June Reading

Listening to Hamilton as I write this piece. I read mostly romance this month as I caught up on my review books and other books on my Kindle. I have a weakness for Jane Austen books, and I read a great one this month.

The Jane Austen Society by Natalie Jenner
Category: Historical Fiction
Comments: When I heard that The Jane Austen Society was billed as a book for fans of The Chilbury Ladies’ Choir and The Guernsey Literary and Potato Peel Pie Society, I knew this was a book for me. As it turns out, The Jane Austen Society is the best historical romantic fiction book I have read this year so far. Jenner writes the story of her memorable characters with deep sensitivity, great imagination, and wonderful prose.

Set mainly in the 1940s, the book is about individuals from the small insular English town of Alton, who, along with a few people around the world, are brought together by their love of Jane Austen’s work. Together, they form a society for the preservation of all things Austen, including her cherished former home in the village of Chawton near Alton in Hampshire. And in so preserving Austen’s legacy, they find hope, love and solace in their own lives, which have been overlooked by society and undervalued by themselves.

Living in the shadow of Austen’s home, these people love her books—identify with her characters more than their neighbors sometimes—and regularly quote from them. One of the joys of this book is the perceptive analysis of Austen’s novels as the characters freely discuss them while conversing with each other. Some of the subplots and scenes even have Austenesque stories embedded in them. The delight in reading this book was their discovery. And yet, The Jane Austen Society is not a derivative book by any means. It stands alone on its merits as an engrossing story well told. My review is here.

The Happy Ever After Playlist by Abby Jimenez
Category: Contemporary Romance
Comments: This is a book that truly makes you believe that a romance is possible for everyone even if you were previously a non-believer. The book begins with sorrow. As an author, it takes guts to start a romance novel with a grieving main character. Jimenez does an absolutely wonderful job showing how grief upon the death of a beloved takes you. How you sleepwalk through your days, how caring about anything is an overwhelming effort, and how coming out of it seems insurmountable and doesn’t seem to be worth it. From this nadir of her life, the heroine rises like a phoenix to lead a rich life filled with laughter and romance.

The meet cute is not between the heroine and the hero, but between her and his dog. They meet over the airwaves between California and Australia when she tries to find the dog's owner. Initially, she’s like finders-keepers because she feels he’s a careless owner, but then they both realize how much they both love the dog, so they decide to be kind and adult and share him. I was sold on these two people right then and there for their maturity and thoughtfulness.

A lot of their initial romance is through their phone conversations. This was the other aspect of the story I liked so much. Since appearances were initially out of the picture, they “like” each other first before “lusting” after each other. I am not a fan of insta-lust, and I need to see friendship and liking first before I can believe in the promise of their HEA. The strongest part of the book for me was not the falling in love aspect of the characters but how they work to fit their lives together. My review is here.

The Boyfriend Project by Farrah Rochon
Category: Contemporary Romance
Comments: The Boyfriend Project was a fun book from beginning to end with some serious exploration underlying it. Farrah Rochon is a new author for me, and now I can’t wait to read the next book in this new contemporary series. In this book, Rochon explores the struggles of Black women in the workplace, particularly in the tech industry, with sensitivity and empathy, and it was the strongest aspect of the novel for me. Being a woman in tech is never easy, but being a double minority, and a Black woman at that, takes an act of courage every single day.

She is a brilliant software engineer who is a go-getter and loves her work. She thinks she’s in an interesting relationship, when she discovers, to her horror, that her boyfriend is cheating on her with two other women, each of whom thinks he’s exclusive to her. From this atrocious beginning comes a close friendship as the three women come together to for their Boyfriend Project: a pact to spend the next six months investing in themselves. What this means that there will be no men and no dating allowed. Samiah uses their pact of working on something that makes them happy as the impetus to finally finish developing the app she’s always dreamed of creating.

Into this determination, steps Daniel Collins, a biracial man (Korean-American and African-American), who investigates financial crimes. On the surface, he is a tech worker just like Samiah. But unknown to her, he’s actually working undercover for the federal government, and it is not something he can divulge to anyone, not even her. As their relationship goes from fun to flirty, he is torn about his secret. My review is here.

Real Men Knit by Kwana Jackson
Category: Contemporary Romance
Comments: This story revolves around Strong Knits, a Harlem neighborhood knitting shop, run by the Strong matriarch, Mama Joy. Jesse Strong is the youngest of Mama Joy’s four foster-adoptive sons. He is someone who has always been popular with the ladies — he loves them and they love him. Kerry Fuller is a part-time employee in the shop and has known Jesse’s mother and his brothers for a while now. Unbeknownst to Jesse, she is madly in love with him, but unrequited love seems to be her future, because Jesse has never paid her any notice.

Then, unfortunately, Mama Joy passes away. Plunged into grief, Jesse has to nevertheless figure out what to do with the shop. His brothers are all for selling it and washing their hands off it. But Jesse wants to keep Mama Joy’s legacy going because the store has evolved into a bit of a community center in the neighborhood—I really enjoyed the small town feel of this story.

The shop is the making of both the protagonists. The hero starts out as under his brothers’ shadow, but gains confidence in himself as the shop takes off. At the start, she is quiet and self-effacing. She likes being useful and is always there helping everybody around her. As their relationship progresses, she gains more confidence in herself as someone who can achieve things, and also as someone who can attract a man who lives life at large. My review is here.

The Marriage Game by Sara Desai
Category: Contemporary Romance
Comments: Layla Patel has returned home to her parents after disaster overtakes her career in New York. She plans to ground herself in her childhood home, above their Michelin-starred restaurant, and launch her own recruiting agency. But all is not well at home and the coveted peace, she had hoped for, is nowhere to be found. Her father has a heart attack, and she discovers that the restaurant is in financial difficulty. And to compound the difficulty, the supposed rent-free office her father gave her already has an occupant with whom she is supposed to share. Sam Mehta is the CEO of a corporate downsizing company, and he, too, is not happy to share an office.

The juxtaposition of Layla’s involved family and Sam’s totally uninvolved one is very well handled. Layla’s dad is a hoot. His well-intentioned but totally interfering and dominating methods to secure a husband for Layla were over-the-top and perfect for the story: He sets up a secret online dating profile for her and then scans hundreds of profiles and curates a list of ten men for her of whom he approves. He even sets up dates with them. The only thing he doesn’t do is go on the dates with Layla. (Sam does instead—to great comedic effect.) My review is here.

Marriage by Arrangement by Sophia Singh Sasson
Category: Contemporary Romance
Comments: This is the first book in Sasson’s Nights at the Mahal series, and I just fell in love with her world.

The heroine has been languishing as a junior architect at RKS Architecture in Las Vegas. She has been dangling on the promise of a promotion for two years. And she finally has a shot at it with her design ideas for a new hotel by a rising hotel group based in India. The hero is heir to a dynasty of hoteliers whose headquarters are in Rajasthan. He is also known as India’s hottest hottie with all its attendant adulation from the female half of the population. While his family is content to conquer the hoteling market in India, Arjun has his eye on a global empire. He has set his sights on Vegas as the first venture.

The last quarter of the book was the strongest section for me. It is easy to fall in love, but it is difficult to make a marriage. It is difficult to fit two lives together and set that within two families. The heart of this book is Rani and Arjun figuring out what they want to take a stance on, what they are willing to compromise, who will give what to whom, and who will decide what they cannot give up. What I also really liked about this book is that Sasson shows how they consider both of their families at large. Sasson has skillfully used their exploration of what their parents and traditions mean to them to build character. They are who they are because of their families and culture. And so, marriage between them has to involve their families—in other words, everyone has to agree that this is a good match. My review is here.

Scandal at the Christmas Ball: Dancing with the Duke's Heir by Bronwyn Scott
Category: Regency Romance
Comments: This is the second novella in the Scandal at the Christmas Ball anthology. The first story was by Marguerite Kaye that I read a couple of years ago. If you love Christmas and truly love the Regency era, this is the story for you. Scott pulls out all stops in lovingly detailing Christmas decorations and traditions, the grand house interior and exterior, clothes and food. It is a feast to those of us who love traditional Regencies. The duke and duchess of Brockmore invite a bunch of the upper class young people every year for the twelve days of Christmas and shamelessly, and successfully, match-make. They even mediate in romantic troubles, patiently sheperding various couples together.

The hero is the extremely reluctant heir to Brockmore, and after four years, still in mourning for the heirs before him: his father and older brother. He is a prominent anthropologist and his speciality is the Sami people of Lapland. She is the outrageous daughter of an earl who is determined to make herself unmarriageable so she can be free to travel the world. They both love to travel, but little do they know that they have this in common when they first meet. He thinks she's an attention-seeking trollope and she thinks he's a self-righteous prig. Clearly, they could have nothing in common. From this premise comes a lovely story of how they are the only ones who truly understand each other. She's calmer and more thoughtful when she's with him; he's more alive in her presence than he has ever been. Their coming together is a story of great tenderness and hot passion, but mostly the slow and careful uncovering of each other's qualities. Lovely.

Don't miss reading Marguerite Kaye and Bronwyn Kaye's joint Author's Note.

This Earl of Mine by Kate Bateman
Category: Regency Romance
Comments: This is the first book in Bateman's Bow Street Bachelors series and requires some suspension of disbelief. The heroine learned about her family's shipping business from her father and is now in charge of it. She is in a quandary: Her cousin wants to trap her in marriage to wrest control of the business, but in order to escape him if she marries someone else, she will still lose her business. So she embarks on a plot to marry a convicted felon who is in line to get his neck stretched real soon. As his widow, she will be independent. (Why she assumes that her unscrupulous cousin won't force her again to marry is left unexplored.) Unfortunately for our heroine, her felon dies before she can marry him. So she sets her sights on a sailor due for transportation to ends of the earth. This is an even better solution, because now her cousin cannot force her to marry him, and with this husband out of the way, the business is safe in her hands. (Like I said, the plot is a tad implausible.)

The implausibility is further stretched by the hero's back story. He is a of the aristocratic class who is an agent of the government who is working on exposing a group of smugglers who want to liberate Napoléon from St. Helena. Unfortunately for him, he is arrested and imprisoned with the smugglers and is set for transportation. He cannot claim his upper class rank because that would blow his cover. So he is in prison, waiting to discover more of the plot. He thinks the woman approaching him with money to marry him is cuckoo but he is game. This is a marriage-of-convenience plot.

There were a couple of reasons this book refused to take off for me. I like when characters are shown—not just told—to be competent at their work and then also shown to be engaged in that work. We are told that the heroine is good at running the shipping business, but other than a cursory telling of the things she does, we are not shown details. The hero's motivation for getting married is questionable. The other thing I found unpalatable is not really fair because it exists in a lot of the historical romance oeuvre: He is a rake who is not a rake. I really like rakes to be, well, rakish on the page, not in the past—I like to see redemption. Despite the good banter and flashes of humor and a reasonable MOC plot, the book ultimately didn't work for me.

To Catch an Earl by Kate Bateman
Category: Regency Romance
Comments: This is the second book in Bateman's Bow Street Bachelors series. Bateman does banter reasonably well in the beginning but that falls away when the characters get caught up in the story. I hoped it would be a theme underlying all the seriousness. The premise is that she is a clever jewel thief, called Nightjar, who steals from wealthy wives of visiting diplomats leaving behind a black feather so they know she had been there. Emma is known for her mastery of disguise, given how many people she has fooled so far. Inexplicably, she wears a unique perfume every time she goes jewel hunting.

He is the Bow Street runner who is in hot pursuit. In reality, he is Alexander Harland, the Earl of Melton, and she is Emmy Danvers, also known as Emmeline Louise d’Anvers, the daughter of France’s most sought after jewel thief. There is much attraction between the two leaving the hero conflicted. There's intrigue in the story about Bonaparte and Napoleon and how someone is hunting her, but the plot overall is lackluster, and despite its promising beginning, the characters then fall into predictable lines.

Monday, June 22, 2020

Updated Recommended Books and Links

I have updated the Recommended Links section of the sidebar by removing broken links and adding a few new ones. I have updated the Recommended Books section of the sidebar by adding many more books to the romance, other fiction, and nonfiction lists and adding poetry and children's picture book lists. I will be slowly addings books to the picture books list since I have so many to recommend there.

Sunday, June 14, 2020

My May Reading

I really like this quote by Anna Quindlen: "We read in bed because reading is halfway between life and dreaming, our own consciounsness in someone else's mind." Most of my reading is done in the evening in bed. This summer, I hope to get more reading done than I have in the past two months, and that means, reading more in a chair, because even I cannot lie in bed during the day. With my daughter's health in such constant turmoil, the pandemic, homeschooling, and now, protesting, I have only done comfort reading. For the second month in a row, all I read were traditional Regencies.

This post is so delayed, almost mid-June, instead of the start of the month like usual, but I have been in a brain fog. I seem to be recovering my spirits. I polished off four reviews for Frolic Media and am now writing up these reviews. First up is a poetry collection, then a nonfic book and a children's picture book, and then the romance books.

Country Without a Post Office by Agha Shahid Ali
Category: Poetry Collection
Comments: The world looks the other way while Kashmir burns. India and Pakistan have fought over this gorgeous Himalayan state since partition and independence in 1947. They routinely send their soldiers to alternately rile up the Kashmiris and subjugate them. The beauty of this region has been bathed in blood and fire for years, and has been forever ruined. We, Americans, are protesting a few weeks of lockdown? Imagine years of deprivation. Agha Shahid Ali was the son of a prominent highly-educated family from Kashmir. He was an American poet who wrote wrenching verses about the desecration of his homeland. Here are excerpts from a couple of his poems from this collection.

"The Country Without a Post Office"
Again I've returned to this country
where a minaret has been entombed.
Someone soaks the wicks of clay lamps
in mustard oil, each night climbs its steps
to read messages scratched on planets.
His fingerprints cancel blank stamps
in that archive for letters with doomed
addresses, each house buried or empty.

"I See Kashmir from New Delhi at Midnight"
"Don't tell my father I have died," he says
and I follow him through blood on the road
and hundreds of pairs of shoes the mourners
left behind, as they ran from the funeral,
victims of the firing. From windows we hear
grieving mothers, and snow begins to fall
on us, like ash. Black on edges of flames,
it cannot extinguish the neighborhoods,
the homes set ablaze by midnight soldiers.

Becoming by Michelle Obama
Category: Audio Nonfic
Comments: I read the book two years ago right when it came out. Then this spring, my daughter and I decided to listen to the audio. And it was an amazing experience. Listening to her book in her own voice felt like she was sitting at the kitchen table with you telling you her story. She has such a calm, measured tone as she tells, what to her, is a story of ordinary people on an extraordinary journey. But as I listened, I felt I was in the presence of an extraordinary person (actually, people, because she tells Obama's story as well) who is leading an extraordinary life with extraordinary grace in the teeth of acute racism and unmitigated hate. I have always admired her, but now, my admiration knows no bounds. How can two people be so amazing?! If you get a chance, do listen to her tell her story.

Stormy by Guojing
Category: Children's Picture Book
Comments: This is a heartwarming wordless book about friendship, compassion, and belonging by illustrator Guojing. A little pup is lost outdoors. He lives wild and scrounges around for food. One day, he sees a woman approaching a bench near him and runs away. From afar he observes her as she observes him. The next day, she shows up again but with a ball for him, but he is scared of this stranger. He only plays with the ball after she has left and allows it to comfort him in the night. After many days, her patience is rewarded when he comes close enough to her to play with her. He has deemed her safe. Not everyone can trust right away when offered a treat. Trust takes time to build. My review is here. (You'll have to scroll the post a bit to find the review for this book.)

Lady with a Black Umbrella by Mary Balogh
Category: Traditional Regency
Comments: I gave this an 'A+' when I read this last year, and I still agree with the grade upon a re-read. It reminds me of The Hampshire Hoyden by Michelle Martin in how funny it is. Neither books descend to a farce. They are carefully calibrated to be witty while also having serious elements. Whereas Umbrella is more tightly woven around the couple, Hoyden has a secondary plot.

The heroine is a redoubtable lady in her mid-twenties, convinced that she is on the shelf and thus suitable of being a chaperone to her younger, beautiful sister. She has rather managing ways, which have stood her in good stead, since she's been managing her father's estate and the house for years given the irresponsible parents she's had. She is also a do-gooder who sometimes doesn't realize the consequences of her actions, nor is she aware of others' opnion of her. She allows no one to gainsay her as she hies off to London to her aunt's house without informing her—just the two young ladies without even a maid or a companion to lend them countenance.

The hero is a viscount of exacting ways who is very conscious of his own consequence and the dignity of his rank and likes things just-so. At an inn on the road to Bath, his purse is stolen and he is in the process of being beaten up badly by the innkeeper's goons, when into the fracas descends our intrepid heroine in a white nightgown, shoeless, hair unbraided, and armed with a gentleman's umbrella, with which she proceeds to route the unsavory fellows beating up the hero. The hero is mortified to be saved by a woman and makes his escape by promising the innkeeper that he will send money to cover his cost.

Having rescued him, she is determined to help more and pays his shot, his gambling debt, and the barmaid, his bedmate for the night. You can imagine how he feels when he—and all of society—finds out! The young women arrive in London to find their aunt out of the country and having to rely on the outraged hero's non-existent kindness.

It is not only her age and lack of looks (so she thinks) are what have convinced her that she is unmarriageable. It is that she is a very managing person, and she should rule any man she married and promptly despise him. The heart of this story is how the hero, who has firm boundaries and knows when to exert them and when to give in, unknowingly establishes himself as a person of ntoe

The Last Waltz by Mary Balogh
Category: Traditional Regency
Comments: This is a very quiet book of two people who were very much in love in their young days and are now finding a second chance at love in the midst of a house party. She was in her first season and he, not much older than her, discovered that they were so attuned to each other as to be unable to think of anyone else when they were together and even when they were apart. And yet, overnight, she changes her alliance from an agreement to marry him to getting engaged to his cousin. He is utterly devastated and precipitously departs to the wilds of Canada to escape the pain.

Now, he is back, because his cousin is dead and he is the earl with its attendant duties to look after. He hates her so much and it shows. And it wounds her again and again as much as she knows she deserves it. Her life with his cousin had been one of horror. She is parched for kindness but cannot leave off years of learned strictures.

He perceives the emotional porousness that kindness requires as a dangerous crack in the armor of his independent self. And yet, he shows such kindness to her and her girls leaving himself vulnerable to her barbs and cold-shouldering. He is kind inspite of his long-held hatred of her as the cause of his unhappiness and despair. But the old love has not died, merely buried under layers of bitterness. It only takes her presence to peal off that scab to reveal the love that had lain fallow all this time.

As the dowager countess, she and he live in the same house along with two female relatives. So while this is not a typical marriage-of-convenience, there is forced proximity that gives rise to changing emotions and a resurgence of desire. The heart of the story is the unraveling of his feelings of her betrayal, the reasons for her then change-of-heart, her marriage with her former husband, and their growing trust in each other. The latter is so wonderful to see—Balogh explores this beautifully time and time again in her books.

The Ungrateful Governess by Mary Balogh
Category: Traditional Regency
Comments: I didn't quite know what to make of this story. The story is unusual enough, but it was the reactions of the protagonists, particularly the heroine, that had me going back and forth about what I felt about the book, right to the end. That is what made the book interesting. My conclusion was that right towards the end, I got a bit fed up with the heroine. Until then, I had felt she had a point and was making it well.

She is beautiful. Naturally. But she is working as a governess suitably clad in gray and being self-effacing. He is a rake, and so, of course, notices the diamond in the rough, and finding her in the library one night in her nightgown and hair down—this is a contrivance that always elicits an eye-roll from me—propositions her for the night. He is soundly refused, but they are caught being alone. Since she is a servant, he gets away scot-free, but she is summarily dismissed without a character. I didn't know what to make of this. It sounds like Balogh being true to unpalatable historical more.

When he finds out, he is wracked with guilt and gives her carte blance as his mistress. She agrees and they're at almost all in (har! har!), when she say 'no.' He immediately stops—Balogh does respect and consent so well—and asks her to apply to his grandmother for help in finding a new position. His grandmother (of course!) recognizes that she is the spitting image of her grandfather, a marquess, and so decides to bring her into fashion. The heroine had a battle of wills with her grandfather and so instead of applying to him for help when she is orphaned but unmarried, she instead chooses to become a governess. You just have to accept this eye-rolling life choice.

Pride! She is suffused with it, and you have to accept this as part of her character. This makes her decision towards the end of the book more logical, but had me impatient with her. The story is all about how he proposes to her multiple times and how she leads him into more and more introspection of his feelings, moving him from a superficial rake to a man of maturity. This is what I liked best about the story. What I liked least is how much self-reflection she makes him do without doing it much herself.

Reforming Lord Ragsdale by Carla Kelly
Category: Traditional Regency
Comments: This, to me, is one of Kelly's best books, if not, the best. He is a true profligate, truly reprehensible. He drinks to excess, to the point of her once finding him covered in his own vomit. He is heartless and concerned solely about himself and thinks lifting a finger to help anyone is too much exertion. He is rude. He is a boor. He hates the Irish because they killed his beloved father in battle and blinded him in one eye. She is Irish. An indentured servant to his American cousins. She is meek with her employers, but displays a streak of boldness in opinions with him. And he finds himself increasing fascinated.

Kelly never does anything in one fell swoop. Hers is a slow build up of change-of-heart. How can the heroine fall in love with him, you imagine, after how she finds him? She initially finds him a loathsome person, and yet, she decides to serve out her indenture, which he has bought, by reforming him. That he agrees, kicking and screaming, is a miracle, and the making of him. He employs her as his secretary because she is good at it. She is virtually re-moulding his life, and thus, making him see that there is something there within him for him to be proud of.

Kelly masterfully shows them slowly progressing first towards respect, then towards liking and thoughtfulness, and thence to trust and love. On the surface, this seems of like what most romance novels are made out of. However, this book is far from the commonplace. His shifting perception of Emma despite her Irishnesses and managing ways, her recognition of his worth and what makes him tick, his thoughtfulness of her happiness, her thinking the best of him...all makes for a lovely story. There is no more I can say about this complex book, other than: Hope you read it!

A Double Deception by Joan Wolf
Category: Traditional Regency
Comments: Only Wolf can turn a tragic tale into one of hope. Both the hero and heroine have suffered greatly in their first marriages. They are filled with shame over it, and yet, they were young and innocent and trusting and were betrayed. The secret behind the failure of his first marriage is shocking, and it is courageous of Wolf to take her story there.

Wolf is an author who truly makes you like her protagonists. They are innately such good people. He is a brilliant scientist, and I really enjoyed all the passages that show him working at something he is truly passionate about. After the sudden suicide of his wife, he had returned to the navy, unable to sustain life at home. He left behind a baby. Luckily, his beloved aunt steps in and invites the heroine, who is suddenly a widow, to look after the boy. She is eager to leave her home and the dominance of her parents, and prizes her independence in caring boy with whom she is utterly in love. She becomes the de facto head of the household, overseeing the house, consulting with the steward, and maintaining a social life.

And then the hero returns. The little boy acts as a glue and a reason for them to come together and to make decisions jointly for his benefit. You would think that the story is now running along predictable tracks, but Wolf has a great second half of the story that makes everything complicated. Someone is trying to kill the heroine and everyone is suspicious that it is the hero. This situation allows both the characters to shine and really is the making of the story. How they rise up to the challenge of solving the issue through caring and trusting each other is wonderful to see. Wolf's strength is in inter-personal interactions.

Lord Richard's Daughter by Joan Wolf
Category: Traditional Regency
Comments: The setting of this book is an unusual one in traditional Regencies. They meet in Africa at a private slave auction, where he is sitting among the Arab buyers and she is the scantily-clad houri being auctioned off. He recognizes that she is British, like him, and brings her home. He wants to send her back safely to her grandmother in England. He is intensely attracted to her, but knows that his adventuring ways make him a lamentable husband. She is intensely attracted to him, but she is so done with unreliable, selfishly independent men after her father dragged her through Africa on missionary work.

What they have in common is a love of Africa. A love of travel. And passionate love for each other just as they are. No one in Regency Society can understand them like they can each other. She is a misfit among Regency misses; he is a misfit among his noble peers.

The story is about how they each change their ideas about themselves, their values, and their notions of how life should be, and is, to fit their lives together. I said in the above review that Wolf's strength is in inter-personal interactions. And that is so true in this book. Wolf also does passion and romantic tenderness between her protagonists so well that it is palpable to the reader. This is why I read romance, not for the plethora of sex scenes.

The Rebellious by Joan Wolf
Category: Traditional Regency
Comments: This is a May-December, nobleman-ward romance, which may not work for everyone because the protagonists meet when she is not even ten and he is almost twenty and already a duke with its attendant responsibilities. She loves him from from the start. He has no romantic feelings for her, only filial love. He spends hours of his time with her when he is home and away from his duties and they become very close.

He first notices her when she turns sixteen-seventeen, and he realizes that she is not a child anymore. He is extremely circumspect and incommunicative of his growing feelings for her, convinced that she would be better off married to a husband towards whom she feels romantic love. He is certain that she has no interest in him in that way. She loves him intensely, but she is also certain that he is indifferent to her.

They are knuckleheads over it for most of the book. There is much pining. Much unrequited angst. This is not a book about romantic tenderness, but about passionately-felt love held in check. All the feelings are internal. But just as intense as the love expressed in the book above. How extraordinary is that? The entire romantic relationship happens inside each other, not openly towards each other. Yet, they are so attuned to one another that when the reveal comes, they instnatly know, that is a forever kind of romantic love.

Thursday, April 30, 2020

My April Reading

One of the fallouts of the pandemic for me is that this month, my review reading went out the window, and I turned resolutely to comfort reading, which for me meant traditional Regencies. Thanks to Sunita, I now have a large collection of original Signets by Mary Balogh and original Fawcetts by Marion Chesney in mint or near mint condition. I also have nearly all of Joan Wolf's trads (not the new ones; I tried two of those, but they don't quite have the charm of the originals). I ended up reading seven Baloghs, one Wolf, one Diane Farr, and one Chesney.

I coded in a LIKE button from to add to the bottom of my blog posts but realized today that the free version allows only one such button on the page, which is useless, and the 10 button option is $8 a year. Whoa! So I coded in a Facebook LIKE button. However, when you 'like' a post, it asks you to confirm by popping up a Facebook box. I wonder if that means that you have to be logged in to Facebook in order to use the button. And what happens if you don't have a Facebook account? I have one and am always logged in so cannot confirm if this is true.

If you aren't always logged in to Facebook or don't have a Facebook account, are you able to 'like' this post? Please let me know. If not, I'll have to go back to the drawing board and code in a new type of button.

[Edited: As Vassiliki reported, the Facebook Like button requires a Facebook login. So I have removed it, and put the LikeBtn button back in while I investigate other options.]

The Temporary Wife by Mary Balogh
Category: Traditional Regency Romance
Comments: This week, I was feeling out of sorts and in no mood to delve into my review books. I knew a trad Balogh would be just the thing to cure temporary boredom. Thanks to Sunita, I have a huge stack of Baloghs. The Temporary Wife is a book I have read before, so it was a tried and true comfort read.

He has been estranged from his domineering, cold, and ruthless father for eight years, since the death of his mother. He has deliberately cultivated an independent life doing what he knew was repugnant to his father, while also amassing a fortune. His ailing father has now demanded that he return home to a dynastic marriage. But he is determined to not bow down to the edict. So he advertises for a governess and marries the one who is the most scared-looking, dowdy, plain, and of barely the genteel classes. He wants to thumb his nose in his father's face. She acquiesces to the plan for the money he will settle on her for her impoverished family.

Initially, he looks upon her in disdain; she in equanimity. Her generosity of spirit and love of family means that she seeks reconciliation between him and his siblings and father, and in so doing, he changes completely and cleaves to her.

Modern authors think they have invented consent in Romance. Here is Balogh's scene written in 1997. Their marriage of convenience is only days old. He is asking to make love to her.

"It is time I went to bed. Good night, my lord," she said.
"Let me come there with you," he said. "You may feel free to say no. I will not force you or even try to persuade you." His voice came from just behind her. "Allow me to open the door for you, my lady. It was no part of our agreement. You must not feel coerced. I will not trouble you by asking again."
"I would like to lie with you," she said.
One of his hands touched her shoulder. "I will take you to my bed, then, if you have no objection," he said.
"No," she said. "I have none."

The Obedient Bride by Mary Balogh
Category: Traditional Regency Romance
Comments: There is no external conflict in this book—the conflict is all internal, all within the bounds of marriage. This story is a true marriage of convenience plot, because the entire book is about an exploration of what marriage means to the two people caught up in it.

He is newly ascended to his title. She is the plain daughter of the previous holder of the title and is a distant cousin of the new viscount. She has been buried in the country her whole life, and at eighteen, behaves like she is much younger. He is a handsome, highly polished, very independent gentleman of Town, who attends glittering ton parties, hobnobs with peers at clubs, games and drinks his nights away, and keeps sophisticated mistresses under his protection. These two have nothing in common, not even conversation...or liking of each other. And yet, he has offered her marriage, on a whim, and she has accepted.

The protagonists are polar opposites in personality and their views on marriage have no commonalities, and yet, they are bound together. They each want something different from their relationship. He thinks he can retain his independence and his activities and his mistress. She thinks she will be content being obedient to him, doing her duty by him, and trying to make him comfortable. They try hard to implement their ideas, but as the days go by, both realize that their earlier suppositions don't hold up. He starts to have feelings for her; she starts to become more independent and assertive.

She is devastated when she finds out that he is keeping a mistress. Infidelity is at the heart of this story. She struggles with coming to terms with the betrayal she feels and what she considers a lady of breeding is supposed to endure. How can she—should she?—respect him when he has spurned their marriage vows? He, in turn, wrests with his conscience. He knows it is a commonly-accepted practice that men have mistresses and subject them to their full passion while having tepid sex with their wives merely to secure the succession. And yet, he cares about his wife and feels protective about her. He has killed her innocence by his behavior, and he feels vast guilt about it. He has done her—what he gradually comes to realize—a grave wrong when it was not his intention; he was merely doing what he thought was usually done. It is through this infidelity as the catalyst, they both begin to change fundamentally into becoming caring, mature, responsible...different people. As he falls in love with her, so does everything about her become precious. She is an avowedly average-looking person. But to him, she becomes so beautiful. This is true romance! Balogh is a master!

Romance writers would not dare to write a book like this today, because most readers have no tolerance for infidelity by the protagonists once The One has been spotted. And these days, readers are vocal on social media in raking the authors who dare to step off the straight and narrow. Writers wrote riskier books in the past, even if every book did not appeal to every reader. I am sure those authors were aware that readers hotly debated their books, and not always kindly, but they wrote those risky books anyway. Authors these days are very sensitive to what is being said of them in social media, and tailor their books to match the au courant moods.

Dancing with Clara by Mary Balogh
Category: Traditional Regency Romance
Comments: The heroine is under no illusions that the hero is a rake through and through whose women were legion and whose debts were staggering. She is also convinced that her lameness due to severe illness in childhood (sounded like polio to me) and her plainness make her ugly to someone of his beauty. But she is rich, and she knows his pockets are to let. So they enter into a marriage of convenience. She tells herself that she is buying his beauteous face and beauteous body, and she is going to be satisfied with that her whole life. He is horrified, on his wedding night, that she expects him to make love to her, but manages to do the deed.

Their honeymoon is a period of halcyon days where they gradually fall into the habit of enjoying each other's company. She is falling in love with him even as he is providing her every means of living and the joys to be found therein. What I love about Balogh's protagonists is that when they find themselves in a MoC, no matter the circumstances, each is willing to give of themselves to the success of their marriage. This means, trying to see the other in a positive light and work at pleasantness.

I liked him immensely for it. But then, came his latter behavior.

Having said what I did about infidelity in the review above, in this book, I felt Balogh went too far for my comfort. The hero is repeatedly and indiscriminately promiscuous even after he discovers he loves the heroine. Even after his declaration to her, he tells her that he may not be able to control his drinking, gambling, and wenching. It is like a demon in him that surfaces from time to time. And she forgives him for it because he always returns to her and he brings her happiness. He is a true rake who errs and repents again and again. But to her, he is a flawed individual whom she loves. Balogh shows us what it means to truly love—which is not loving perfection, but loving despite the utter lack of perfection. To me, the heroine was all goodness and deserved all goodness. She deserved the hero's fidelity and respect and consideration forever more. And I could not forgive the hero for not giving it to her. What a brave, brave book. And to those readers who love this book, you are such brave readers.

Dark Angel by Mary Balogh
Category: Traditional Regency Romance
Comments: She has been betrothed since she was fifteen to a perfectly perfect being in appearance and address. She believes she is dizzily in love with him, but lacks the self-awareness that she is in love with the idea of him. He is a corrupt individual who debauched the stepmother of the hero, leading the hero to flee to the Continent with his enceinte stepmother, his reputation under a cloud. The ton believes that he had an affair with his stepmother, while his father was alive.

Now his father has been dead a year and the stepmother is settled and happily in love with a man, and so he is back to attempt to repair his relationship. All the meantime, his heart burns with revenge. The story is about how the hero seeks to break his enemy's betrothal and thereby hurt him. However, the villain wants the same thing: break his betrothal. In the midst of their games, our innocent heroine is badly hurt, so the hero marries her to save her reputation.

On their wedding day, he tells her, "I am so very sorry, my dear. I know the words are woefully inadequate, but they are the best I can do. It is damnable mess I have got you into, but there is only one way out. We can only go forward and try to make something workable out of what seems impossible tonight."

How is she to trust him?

Incredibly, here is what she says, "I think you are right. I think we have to go on and just hope that time will bring some healing. I am so tired of hating." And then we see her struggle with her lack of trust of him and her decision to trust anyway through the early days of her marriage.

He, on the other hand, had been so consumed in using her as a weapon for revenge, he had failed to notice that his feelings were changing even before marriage. This book has wonderful insight into the hero's thoughts as he starts falling in love with the heroine. All throughout the early days of his marriage, he examines his feelings. It is a rare hero in romance, particularly in the early 1990s, who falls in love by degrees, not in one fell swoop followed by a dramatic public declaration. And he is in love long before the heroine decides to trust him thereby allowing her to fall in love with him. When she declares it to him, he starts crying. He had been so afraid for so long that his marriage was untenable.

The Notorious Rake by Mary Balogh
Category: Traditional Regency Romance
Comments: You just have to get over the scene in Vauxhall Garden where the protagonists, who barely know each other—and only by reputation, which they find intolerable—find themselves in a shelter in a thunderstorm, and he helps her control her terror by making love to her. And he proceeds to fall headlong in love with her and wooes her in rakish, ungenteel, ways. She is repelled and unwillingly attracted by him, yet, for a long time, she repulses his advances.

He wondered yet again why he was pursuing her to relentlessly. She was so much older and plainer than most of the dancers, who were his usual fare. At least he thought she must be. He could no long remember if she was pretty or plain, old or young. She was Mary.

Balogh uses that refrain of his calling her and thinking of her as simply "Mary" to great effect in the story.

In true rakish fashion, for a long time, he convinces himself that he is only pursuing her as a mistress. He repeatedly tells her how he has given up years of rakish ways for abstemious living. He wants to show her that she will not get a drunken womanizer for a lover, but that she will get someone who has more to him than what she knows.

But is there? There follows a deep examination in the story whether there was anything in his life with which to impress her. Here we have a rake who feels he is not fit to live up to her expectations; one who feels inadequate and suffers from a crisis of confidence. And then he falls in love with her. And his self-hatred deepens. Can he make himself over to be worthy of her regard? Probably not. And so, he confesses his love and sets her free. This starts her journey into what he means to her. Balogh is such a master at self-examination by her protagonists, and as they discover hitherto unknown facets of themselves, they like or change what they don't like of themselves.

A Chance Encounter by Mary Balogh
Category: Traditional Regency Romance
Comments: The heroine is a lady fallen on hard times and is now a companion to a young girl who is out of the schoolroom but hasn't yet been launched into society. The heroine has moved as far away from her old home as she can get following a scandal when she was young where she fell deeply in love with a gentleman who she believed loved her back. Imagine her horror when her nemesis from her past, from whom she had fled, shows up in the village where she now lives and proceeds to gallantly court her charge and other ladies in the area. He treats her with contempt, and she reviles him.

This is a Big Misunderstanding story done well even if it has the standard melodrama of the two not being able to have a rational conversation to clear the air. Even if you're not fond of Le Big Mis, I hope you will give this story a try, because this is one of the original misunderstanding stories with all the complexity that later imitations lack. What also adds nuance is the delicious twist in the tale in the second half of the book, which I will not reveal. It has excellent shock value, and the real story into romance begins there.

Red Rose by Mary Balogh
Category: Traditional Regency Romance
Comments: This was a book I simply could not like no matter what because the hero behaves so badly to the heroine through most the book, that I could not buy into his redemption, despite the clichéd grand gesture in the very last three pages. There was no earthly reason why this eminently nice heroine would love him.

The premise is simply enough: He inherits two wards. The older one is determined to stay single because she is lame in one leg. But, oh, how she dreams! She has this made-up hero in her mind who promises her deep abiding love and show her every respect and courtesy there is. The hero is highly eligible: good looking, titled, and rich. And cynical. And reprehensible, to boot. He is her dream lover come to life in looks—only in looks, not in manner.

This is the hero at the beginning of the book: There was that base bodily craving that had to be satisfied—and satisfy it he did with the type of woman he most despised. He always chose his women with care, assuming almost without conscious thought that physical beauty might compensate for the fact that he despised both the woman who gave her favors for money or expensive baubles and himself who bought.

What a prince! And he does not improve on closer examination.

Fool's Masquerade by Joan Wolf
Category: Traditional Regency Romance
Comments: One of the most important facet of Wolf's trads is that her characters are eminently likeable, so the reading is always pleasant for me. You can sink into her books and know that there won't be any nasty surprises. This is not to say that they are insipid. Far from it. They have such complex stories where the characters lead important lives and are shown doing meaningful work and having a purpose to life, well, other than getting married. I love her political books, but this non-political books is one of my favorites as well. It is perhaps the most Heyeresque of her books.

The heroine is left an orphan on the Peninsula during the war, and decides to masquerade as a boy so she can protect herself and also earn money to support herself. The only thing she knows much about is horses and so proceeds to Newmarket to work in one of the stables there. She meets the hero when she agrees to deliver a horse to him in person all the way in Yorkshire. There, he rules as the undisputed king of the north. He is extremely powerful, and Wolf convincingly shows us that. What I liked best about him is that even as he muddles his way into love with her, he never loses that aura of power and capability.

Until he finds her partially unclothed, for weeks on end, he never suspects that she is a girl. In this, Wolf departs from Heyer's These Old Shades, where the hero instantly divines she is a girl. For someone so used to succeeding and being very good at something, the hero does not like feeling stupid over this. The heroine falls in love with the hero early on in the book. Wolf makes the careful distinction between 'falling in love' and 'love choosing you.'

After discovering her gender and that she is the granddaughter of an earl, he feels compelled to propose marriage. But she runs away from him, because hers is a jealous, possessive love, and he thinks of her as a child and does not love her. Wolf's heroines tend to be young but very mature as are her heroes, which is part of their likeability for me. The third fourth of the book is devoted to her growth from a tomboy into a young lady of fashion. The last fourth of the book shows the hero finally recognizing that she is all grown up and falling in love with her.

The Nobody by Diane Farr
Category: Traditional Regency Romance
Comments: Our country miss is an intrepid independent woman of maturity. But she has no fortune and no looks, in other words, she is a nobody, in the words of a snooty, uppity daughter of a duke at a London ball. Though trying to rally her spirits, the heroine is nevertheless stung by the remark, and flees the ball to walk the darkened streets to her home. I rolled my eyes at this. Luckily, she does not get raped, but is hauled into a dark corner by the hero and thoroughly kissed. The hero is escaping men who want to hurt him.

Yes, there is a mystery in the story—someone wants him dead, which he refuses to believe, attributing all the attempts on his life as coincidences. Our daughter of the duke is the proverbial third person in the love triangle and repels the hero with her unbending, scolding, temper-driven ways, while the heroine attracts the hero with her winsome, witty, caring ways. This is a low-conflict, predictable story that is nevertheless soothing to read, precisely because of its predictability. It is considered one of Farr's popular trads.

Frederica in Fashion by Marion Chesney
Category: Traditional Regency Romance
Comments: This was a sigh-worthy read, and not in a good way. The premise was a tad far-fetched and the execution was poor. The premise could've been made into a good book, many a book has started that way and worked its way to a satisfactory conclusion. But this book died aborning, because Chesney manipulated her characters into positions and actions that had nothing to do with the characters and everything to do with the author.

Our heroine is the youngest, and un-prettiest, of six heroines. All her sisters have been brilliant matches into the nobility. Instead of trying to improve her lot, she runs away from her select academy to be a chambermaid in a duke's household without knowing the first thing about being a maid or speaking like one. Within days, she is found out by the duke, but unlike Balogh's story above, our duke never thinks that a lady living unescorted in his mansion is compromised in the eyes of society. He promptly escorts her to London, where her sisters promptly pamper her, doll her up, and server her up to the marriage mart. Once on display, the duke proceeds to fall in love with her toute suite. Simple enough story that can be found in many trads, right? Unfortunately, there was the sort of melodrama that was off-putting and quite sank the novel.

Chesney (AKA M.C. Beaton) is a popular Regency author, but perhaps she is not for me. I am going to give another of her tales a try. After all, I own quite a few of the books.

Tuesday, March 31, 2020

Reading in the Time of Coronavirus

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

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

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

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

Speaking of Romance...

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Saturday, February 29, 2020

My February Reading

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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