Thursday, April 28, 2016

My April Reading: The Romance Version

April was a banner month for romance-reading for me in a long time. I read TWELVE of them. The Martins and Wolfs were all re-reads. I also read three very interesting children's picture books.

The Hampshire Hoyden by Michelle Martin
Categories: Romance, Regency, Traditional
Comments: This is one of my top romances ever. I LOVE the laugh-out-loud humor in the story and it is all in conversation with quick ripostes, great timing, and wonderful play on words. This is my kind of humor. Michelle Martin wrote very few traditional Regencies and that is to my everlasting regret. Mistakes over aristocratic titles aside, you read her books for the people in her stories. They're so alive: breathing, laughing, living.

Kate Glyn has declared a great desire to remain a spinster all her life because she finds men ultimately disappointing She's similarly unimpressed by the haut ton, who treated her very badly her first season and since then has bored her season after season. With painstaking care, she's built up a reputation of respectability despite her sharp tongue and unpopular humor and tendency towards bluestocking pursuits.

This season, she's chaperoning her best friend, who's five years younger than her, through her first season. Her friend is an Incomparable, whose social success causes jealousy to burn in the breast of the Perfection Incarnate. The Incarnate's jealousy gets an added reason because the marquess she wants to marry seems to prefer Kate's laughing company to her more stoic, elegant one.

There's a lot of sturm und drang with various people trying to exact revenge on various other people and who foils whom. But in the end it all shakes out and Kate and her friend find the loves of their lives.

If you haven't read a Michelle Martin, you've got to read this one.

The Butler Who Laughed by Michelle Martin
Categories: Romance, Regency, Traditional
Comments: Sarah Thorndike is an heiress and a duke's daughter, a timorous girl who's completely dominated by her parents. In this book, her marriage has been arranged to a Tulip of the First Stare of Fashion. Neither can abide the other and are completely dismayed upon first being introduced to each other. They want out and put their heads together to make it happen. In the meantime, there's some skullduggery going on to retrieve an incriminating letter (read: ill-thought impassioned letter to an opera dancer) from a blackmailer.

The setting of the story is very Agatha Cristie: a house party in a country manor. The blackmailer, Sarah's family, and some other members of the nobility have been invited. Despite her exalted position, Sarah has an egalitarian approach towards the help. She was raised by her nannies, the groom, the kitchen cook, etc. and she's closer to them than to her parents. Naturally, she gravitates to the butler, who's nice to her and is also fascinating.

Now the butler is a knight in disguise who's helping the Tulip to unmask the blackmailer. (I never claimed this story didn't have its fantastical elements.) In the meantime, his demeanor, his looks, his erudition are winning Sarah over. Of course, she knows that her love is hopeless. A duke's daughter cannot marry a butler. It's just not done.

The interesting part of the story is not how they fall in love but how they resolve their HEA.

The Rebellious Ward by Joan Wolf
Categories: Romance, Regency, Traditional
Comments: There is not one Joan Wolf traditional Regency (or historical fiction) books that I have that I have not liked. This was a re-read of a book I've read often before. And it is so achingly lovely. Wolf does people really, really well.

The story begins with Catriona as a ten-year-old and continues through her come out at eighteen. Somewhere along the way she falls in love with her guardian, who's eleven years older than her, and he with her. The whole coming-of-age is done tenderly and sensitively. Catriona is like a flame and gets into her share of scrapes. He's the serious Cambridge student and a very responsible duke. But they share laughter and common interests. The maturation and opening up of their personalities to each other is lovely to watch. I enjoy watching two people fall bit-by-bit in love on the page.

Lord Richard's Daughter by Joan Wolf
Categories: Romance, Regency, Traditional
Comments: One thing I really love about Wolf's stories are how well-researched they are. I always learn something new. And this is not just surface sprinkling—the characters care deeply about the issues, are well-informed, and can discuss them intelligently.

These two people Julianne and John are so different from each other. Her wild teen years following the restless adventurous company of her father has made her crave security, safety, and domestic ties. His stifling childhood has made him wild for the freedom of living as he chooses. And yet, they have Egypt in common. Both love Africa and adventure is in their blood, reluctantly in hers and passionately in his. Julianne sees Africa through a writer's eyes, meticulous and creative. John sees Africa through an opportunist's eyes, where he makes money by applying his intelligence. Neither one cares for English society and the rules and strictures that cage guide the ton.

Best line in the book: "I would hardly call Egypt uncivilized. There was a civilization on the Nile before England was ever heard of."

The story's about her realizing who she really is and what she really cares about, and then reaching out for what she really wants.

A Double Deception by Joan Wolf
Categories: Romance, Regency, Traditional
Comments: This is a story of trust and how trust plays one of the most important roles in marriage. I loved this book for the maturity shown by the hero and heroine in how they conducted their lives through their first unhappy marriages, in the interim, and how they do so after they meet. We read a lot of marriage of convenience plots in Romance where the hero and heroine labor under jealousies and misunderstandings and come to an understanding after external circumstances remove those doubts. In this story, when trouble strikes, the heroine assesses her situation intelligently, sees a pattern of behavior on part of the hero, and then makes the decision to trust him implicitly. The hero made up him mind to trust her from the day he married her. This allows them to resolve the mystery as a team rather than fighting each other and seeking outside validation. Trust came before love in this story. Such a refreshing story to behold.

Fool's Masquerade by Joan Wolf
Categories: Romance, Regency, Traditional
Comments: There are some stories that you simply fall into and love to pieces. This is one of them. On the surface, it's not usual: She's an orphan and to survive, she dresses up as a boy and works in his household. She's eventually unmasked. He discovers she's of genteel blood who's been living unchaperoned in his castle, so he offers her marriage.

But she refuses him and runs away to her grandparents. She's in love with him but not he with her. She refuses to obligate him and ruin his life. However, they had become friends when she was a boy and he misses her. He makes everyone's life miserable in his castle, while she learns the graces of a young woman of genteel birth. When she goes to London for the Season, he goes off in hot pursuit. And that is where he falls in love with her as the woman she is now. She's still the friend she always was, but now she's also the woman who makes his heart race.

Secrets of a Soprano by Miranda Neville
Categories: Romance, Regency
Comments: I was sent a print ARC by Neville and my commentary is here. For a great dual review of the book, visit Dear Author.

Powerful Italian, Penniless Housekeeper by India Grey
Categories: Romance, Contemporary, Category
Comments: When I read the following on Susanna Kearsley's blog I knew immediately that I had to read this book. She highly recommended it.

It was a mechanical model of the solar system, showing everything in its relative position. There was something soothing about watching how the moons and planets followed their own unwavering path, each one taking its own specific place in a dance so intricate it was almost beyond human comprehension. Galileo had understood it, even though it went against everything he'd been brought up to believe.

I was glad my local library carried it. I loved it. This book has some improbabilities in it, but it's surrounded by excellent character-building, complex emotions, and a believable storyline. I enjoyed the story so much that I have now bought two of Grey's novels.

Lorenzo is a film director who's in love with a late author's sole travel poetry-prose book. However, all his attempts to option the book for a movie are rebuffed by his penniless daughter, Sarah. When said daughter shows up at his home due to said improbable circumstances, he becomes enamored of her and her daughter so much so that he's reluctant to bring up the book, which is painful to her. Of course, the book hangs over him like the Sword of Damocles and of course the Sword falls on his neck, but he saves his neck with élan.

I'm sensitive to how children are portrayed in books. Many times, they're shown to be interfering precocious twits and totally unbelievable. I have two kids, so I know what I'm talking about here. However, in this book, Lottie is done exactly right.

Mistress: Hired for the Billionaire's Pleasure by India Grey
Categories: Romance, Contemporary, Category
Comments: The title and back cover copy are execrable and have nothing to do with the story at hand. This was another hit for me as far as Grey is concerned. I didn't love it as much as I loved the story above and it had more improbable elements, however, it was still a good read.

Rachael is a concert pianist and is about to be railroaded into marriage with a conductor who had raped her previously. She meets the hero Orlando and is so taken up with him that she runs away from her wedding to his estate, where, um, none of her wedding party ever finds her, though the manor is down a country lane road. Other than playing the piano, she's thoroughly inept at everything from cooking to driving to taking care of a baby.

OK, so you're wondering what it is I was smoking when I said I still liked this story. Nothing. I liked this story, because of what Grey does with such an improbable beginning of the story. Grey's strength is in the characterization.

The cutest moment is when Rachael calms the infant down by playing Chopin's Nocturne in E Minor to him. The worst moment is when she gives up being a concert pianist in order to be a wife and mother of Orlando's baby.

Emily and the Notorious Prince by India Grey
Categories: Contemporary, Romance, Category
Comments: This, unfortunately, did not work for me. An improbable plot combined with OTT writing made me realize that I'm not the correct market for this type of book. I mean, this is India Grey, whose above two novels I liked. But this was written in a different style that is popular with a lot of people, just not for me.

Luis is the playboy prince of a Portuguese-speaking kingdom. Emily is the heiress of a wealthy English father. They meet at the annual grand charity ball on her estate. He's interested in her but considers her still too young for him. She, on the hand, finds her first kiss a mind-blowing experience and is smitten.

Fast-forward a year, Luis is now the crown prince, since his brother and sister-in-law die in a helicopter crash. His father, the king, is ailing and he has sole custody of his very young niece to whom he's not close. In the meantime, Emily's mother, to whom she was very close, has passed away from a long illness and Emily has discovered that her father had a brief affair the night before his marriage and has a daughter from that union. Emily feels so betrayed by her father that on the night of her mother's funeral, with no warning or preparation, she decamps for London.

There she lives, undetected, for many months in a nasty bedsit and supports herself by working behind a bar in a lap-dancing establishment. Luis discovers her at a community center dance in a mean suburb of London that he's attending to burnish his image of a serious crown prince, not a playboy second son. He informs her father that he has found her, and then he hies her off to his country to teach ballet to his niece.

From Emily's immatureness to Luis's bossiness, from repeated phrases in successive or the same paragraphs to exoticizing the Portuguese language and Portuguese men, from detailed descriptions of Luis's sexual prowess to his physical magnificence, and so on, I realized that my not liking the book is certainly not the fault of the book. None of this style of storytelling is uncommon and is in fact quite popular, but this type of book is not for me. I liked India Grey's above two books and will perhaps like some of her other books.

If Wishes were Earls by Elizabeth Boyle
Categories: Regency, Romance
Comments: I have liked silly heroines before as well as implausible plots. Silly heroes, on the other hand...Yes, I have double standards. It takes quite a bit for a hero to carry off being silly. Heyer does it remarkably well. However, in this story, the hero wasn't trying to be silly. He was in fact in deadly earnest—trying to keep the heroine away from him because there was someone who had it in for him. His is not a courtesy title; he's a peer of the realm and I saw no evidence to support that other than him being referred to the earl and deferred to as My Lord. A case in point of immaturity was how he takes the innocence of the heroine, a lady, and then almost proposes marriage to another woman all in the guise of trying to keep the heroine away from him because of the dastardly plot against him. This was a story that just didn't work for me. I know when this book came out, it did very well, so it's a popular book by a very popular author.

False Angel by Edith Layton
Categories: Regency, Romance
Comments: This book was recommended to me by Willaful. I have enjoyed other Edith Layton books, and I consider her The Duke's Wager one of my top books ever. However, this book was less successful for me. A majority of it is told in narrative. Quite a bit of the action happens off-stage and we hear about it when the heroine tells us about it, supplementing it with her thoughts. I simply couldn't sustain my interest in finding out what happened next to her. From the way the hero and heroine's characters are set up, I know I would've liked them and would've liked to have known their story. But the style of the book was against my enjoyment of it.

The Amazing Travels of Ibn Battuta by Fatima Sharafeddine
Categories: Children's, Picture
Diversity: Features people from Africa, Turkey, the Middle East, India, and China
Comments: I borrowed this book ostensibly for my kid, but really, for myself. I had heard so much about Ibn Battuta, the intrepid adventurer of the medieval world that I had to discover, at least in brief, his life's story. It was a fascinating book.

At twenty-one, this brave young man set out from Tangier, Morocco and traveled across Northern Africa, all over the Middle East, into Turkey, India, and China, and down the eastern African coast. He was a religious man and went thrice to Mecca on the Hajj. Everywhere he went he met with sultans and sheikhs, governors and legal scholars, and theologians and students. He carefully documented all his travels and all that he observed. He was warmly welcomed everywhere he went for all the foreign tales of adventure he brought to everyone.

He finally returned to Fez, Morocco at age 50 and settled down to being a judge at the sultan's behest and writing down his memoirs. His writing style was wry and humorous. Of China he wrote:

"When I reached the seaport of Quanzhou, I was amazed to see that even the poorest people in China wore silk. They also had porcelain pottery decorated with the finest artwork. I was even impressed by the hens, which were bigger than the geese in my country!"

A Masterpiece for Those Who Contemplate the Wonders of New Sights and the Marvels of Traveling is one his most famous books. The modern-day edited version of that book is The Travels of Ibn Battutah. Before tackling this dense book, I plan on reading Travels with a Tangerine: From Morocco to Turkey in the Footsteps of Islam's Greatest Traveler, the first of a three-book coverage of Battuta's travels by historian and British Arabist Tim Mackintosh-Smith.

Deep in the Sahara by Kelly Cunnane
Categories: Children's Picture
Diversity: It's set in Mauritania, West Africa
Comments: The story is of a little girl wanting to grow up and wear the malafa [moo-lah-fuh] of the older girls and women of her village. A mulafa is a beautiful, colorful cloth that some Muslim women in Mauritania wear to cover their clothing and heads when they go out in public and when they pray.

In her quest to find out more about the mulafa, the little girl questions her mother, her grandmother, her older sister, her cousin, and the women of the village. They all tell her what a malafa isn't and in so doing they let her figure out what a malafa signifies in a woman's life. They say it's not for beauty, it's more than a mystery, it's more than all the gold on a bride's crown, it's more than being a grown-up, it's more than old tradition, and so on. Ultimately, the girl approaches her mother:

"Mama, more than all the dates in an oasis, I want a malafa so I can pray like you do."

And her mother realizes that her little girl is now ready for her own malafa. A malafa, the author explains in her note, is to keep the wearer's attention not on outer appearance of the body but on the inner, spiritual connection with God.

I loved this story because through this little girl, the reader discovers why Muslim women wear the veil. And in so doing, the story demystifies the western notion that it's a symbol of female repression, which it isn't. It's an expression of reverence to God and is synonymous with the men wearing the turban.

The White Cat and the Monk by Jo Ellen Bogart
Categories: Children's Picture
Comments: In the ninth century, an Irish Benedictine monk wrote down the poem Pangur Bán in rhyming couplets in Old Irish. In it, the monk describes his beloved companion, a white cat who shares his small room. Both of them are seeking something: the cat's looking for mice, the monk's looking for knowledge and enlightenment in his books. Bogart says the poem was written at Reichenau Abbey in southern Germany and is now part of the book Reichenau Primer.

Pangur does not disturb me at my work, and I do not disturb him at his. We are each content with all we need to entertain us. Ours is a happy tale. He feels joy at catching his prey. I feel joy as I find, at last, the answer to my puzzle. In our tiny home, Pangur finds his mouse... and I find light in the darkness.