Monday, October 2, 2017

My September Reading

I set about correcting my zero accounting of books for August with a vengeance this month. I read a whopping 19 books, which, for those who know me, is stupendous. I read at most 3-7 books—I would like to be reading more, but that's a number I can comfortably manage. Now if I were to read something difficult like Game of Kings by Dorothy Dunnett, I would get nothing else read that month. Speaking of challenging books, I did manage to read ONE book from the Booker longlist.

The Underground Railroad by Colson Whitehead
Category: Literary Fiction
Comments: Brilliant and harrowing. Whitehead's spare prose makes the story he relates stark and compelling. Cora is a slave on a cotton plantation in Georgia. Her grandmother was kidnapped and brought to America from Africa. One day, Cora takes up a fellow slave's suggestion to use the Underground Railroad to make her escape North. What follows is a grotesque tale of escape and pursuit, hatred and violence, degradation and depravity, hope and despair. And through it all, you see Cora's indomitable spirit shinning through. According to Michiko Kakutani, "[The book] possesses the chilling matter-of-fact power of the slave narratives collected by the Federal Writers’ Project in the 1930s." Through Whitehead's literal implementation of tunnels, stations, tracks, and trains, Cora is able to travel to different places along her journey through the history of race and slavery in America. I found this literary device so imaginative, because it provides a magical and relatable way for the reader to navigate history. This would have been impossible to do in a normal book. It was a difficult read, and I had to put it down and pick it up a lot, but I'm so glad I read it. It has won the National Book Award and the Pulizer Prize and has been longlisted for the Booker.

Major Pettigrew's Last Stand by Helen Simonson
Under a Sardinian Sky by Sara Alexander
The Wicked City by Beatriz Williams
Category: General Fiction
Comments: My first Romance in Fiction column for Heroes and Heartbreakers comprises these three books. In each of them, the protagonists come from such disparate backgrounds that their love is a miracle. And yet, at no point do you doubt their sincerity to compromise and sacrifice to make it be forever. In Major Pettigrew, he's a Christian soldier of the British Raj born in Pakistan. She's a Pakistani Muslim born in England. They defy convention and tradition in a bid for happiness. In Sardinian Sky, she's a small village seamstress who's been nowhere. He's a world-traveled American soldier. And yet, they dare to love in the face of familial ostracization. In Wicked City, she's a party girl with a love of gin and laughter. He's a Prohibition officer involved in intrigues and closed off emotionally. They fall in love despite themselves. My short reviews are here.

Imprudent Lady by Joan Smith
The London Season by Joan Wolf
Knaves' Wager by Loretta Chase
Category: Traditional Regency Romance
Comments: Three books make up my second Oldies and Goodies column for Happy Ever After. I have read and re-read these books so many times. I can't thank Amazon enough for making these books easily available in print and digital. Other than haunting used bookstores, I would've had no recourse. My short reviews are here.

The Perilous Life of Jade Yeo by Zen Cho
Category: Historical Romance
Comments: It is set in London of the 1920s, but could've easily been a contemporary story. In just ninety pages, Zen Cho builds a larger than life portrayal of Jade Yeo, her motivations and her shortcomings. The powerful message of this story is that love is accepting and love is kind. Even if you make a mistake, love does not judge you. Rather than beating readers over the head with this epiphany, the book illustrates it with wry humor and restrained emotion, thus making the revelation all the more impactful. My review is here.

Gideon and the Den of Thieves by Joanna Bourne
Category: Regency Romance Novella
Comments: What can I say? It's a BOURNE! Joanna Bourne's fascinating; her books are riveting. I didn't read this novella when it was first published in the anthology Gambled Away before the publication of Beauty Like the Night, but recently, author Rose Lerner gifted me with a copy of the anthology. So far, this is the only story I've read, but I'm looking forward to the entire anthology. In this story, we get our first look at Hawker at his youngest—lethal even at twelve. This is when he was Lazarus's Hand. However, even then, we see glimpses of how Hawker was going to grow from a conscienceless killer into a man of justice for the greater good. It takes a great deal of skill to be able to convey a deep immersion into the characters and plot in the short format of a novella. It's a story not to be missed.

Act Like It by Lucy Parker
Pretty Face by Lucy Parker
Category: Contemporary Romance
Comments: ALI is one of my top romances of 2017, but both are wonderful: snappy dialog, wit, modern characterization, the London theater scene, all of it so detailed and well-tuned. Parker's talent is in building tight, complex relationships that don't feel rushed or smoothened out. All the problems are out in the open, and they are all dealt with. There're no deus ex machine events that magically get characters out of the tight spots they put themselves in. I laughed and laughed as I re-read them; my husband laughed and laughed as he read them. We're very fond of Lucy Parker in our household, and we can't wait for Carina Press to drop the third book in the series. My review is here.

Tempt Me at Twilight by Lisa Kleypas
Category: Victorian Romance
Comments: First published in 2009, it will be re-released in October. (Can I fangirl for a moment? I have a rare signed copy! Ahem.) This is a Hathaway Sisters story featuring Pandora. I have liked every book of this series, but I especially like this one, because it is a simple story of trust, belief, and making do. Pandora wants a commonplace, gentle life in the countryside, yet she finds herself in a marriage to a driven man living in a hotel in London. How is she to reconcile her dreams with her reality? How is she to find love and forge a new beginning with what life has handed to her? How can this girl brought up in sunlight reconcile herself to life with a stranger used only to the darker side of life? My review is here.

Secret Lessons with the Rake by Julia Justiss
Category: Regency Romance
Comments: This was a much-awaited book for me, after reading the first three in the Hadley's Hellions series. It's a story of the taming of the rake by a courtesan, aided by reforming and improving lessons on polite society by her. Mr. Christopher Lattimer is the titular son of Lord Vraux, but is largely believed to be begetted by one of his mother's legion of lovers. While mother and son have a fond relationship, his childhood experience of being cruelly taunted has led him to spurn his heritage by turning his attentions to the demimonde. It is there that he meets Ellie Parmenter. He's met her on and off for a number of years and has known her to be an aging peer's young mistress. Now that he's dead, she's free to start afresh with a vocational training school for girls with no other recourse than the streets. Now that Ellie has turned respectable, how is Christopher going to behave towards her? Both are equally aware that they desire each other greatly. But he's a rising Member of Parliament and needs to marry a respectable girl. She, too, wants to lead a virtuous life for her own self-respect. But their craving for each other is ever-present in their minds and hearts. Wonderful character build-up makes you root for their HEA and believe in it when it happens.

Lord of Scoundrels by Loretta Chase
Category: Regency Romance
Comments: This was a DNF. Alas! I have never gotten the hype surrounding the book, and a re-read ten years after the first read, brought racism to light before my older, more discerning eyes. The constant references to the Marquess of Dain's dark looks (he's Caucasian but with a tanned skin and black hair and eyes) resulting in his being treated as a lesser being or even the devil's spawn was disturbing. Given that many of the Regency nobility were involved in the slave trade, this attitude was more than merely unpleasant. The book never calls it out to be so, merely implies that the others were being unjust to Dain. And somehow the way the story moves forward, Jessica saves him despite himself. I do realize that redemption of the hero by the heroine is often a theme in romance and can work very well, however, in this case, the racism combined with the white savior makes the story unpalatable. I know, I know. I'm aghast at my temerity in criticizing the great Loretta Chase. And I'm in the extreme minority here—people overwhelmingly love the story.

Billionaire Boss, M.D. by Olivia Gates
Category: Contemporary Category Romance
Comments: This was my first foray into the Harlequin Desire line, and I think I came up against the sub-genre conventions. Right off the bat, this billionaire being described as a world-class plastic surgeon and the founding member of a global juggernaut of a company was a bit of an eye-roll for me. How can one person do two such intensely time-consuming jobs? But, OK, I accepted that and moved on. Then came this description of him (easily discernable at first glance): a body suited to a world-class athlete, jaw-dropping assets, masterpiece of bone structure, leonine forehead, patrician nose, slashing cheekbones, powerful jaw, sculpted lips, amazing shape and startling blueness of the eyes of a scientist in which you could read many things (amusement, austerity, curiosity, superiority, astuteness, calculation), and on and on. I almost DNF'd the book there and then. But I thought that Ms. Gates comes across well-recommended, so I stolidly trudged on to the end. The book was certainly not my cuppa tea. In this short format, there were multiple love scenes and big emotional showdowns between the protagonists. I'm of the opinion "less is more" and this was a book where "more and more and more" was the norm. I do believe what I was up against was sub-genre conventions rather than Gates's writing style per se.

Her Kind of Doctor by Stella Bagwell
Category: Contemporary Category Romance
Comments: I experimented with another category romance, a Harlequin Special Edition. This book started off really well. I enjoyed the work tension between the domineering ER doctor and his overworked, patiently suffering ER nurse. For three years, this was their professional life, until one day, she blows up and transfers out. Well, the book went downhill from there. On the turn of a dime, he transforms from a fierce lion into a tame cat. They start going out, she transfers back, and their work life together is never mentioned again. Emotionally, this book should've been a single-title, but it's compressed in this shorter format requiring leaps of emotional development to make the HEA work. But my biggest beef with the book came towards the end where instead of the two of them compromising and coming together, she gets exactly what she wants, while he sacrifices much on different fronts for her. From being a couple of equals, they descended to grovel upon grovel on his part. To me, their HEA was unbelievable at that point, because human nature being what it is, he would've resented her sooner or later. Again, I believe I was up against sub-genre conventions rather than Bagwell's writing style.

Yo Soy Muslim: A Father's Letter to His Daughter by Mark Gonzales, illustrated by Mehrdokht Amini
Category: Children's Picture Book
Comments: The author and illustrator are very well-known for publishing stories from all over the world and in various countries, taking on subjects from various cultures. Gonzales's portfolio also includes 3 TED stages. This book is a celebration of multiculturalism and social harmony in lyrical beautiful writing. "Dear little one, ...know you are wondrous, A child of crescent moons, a builder of mosques, a descendant of brilliance, an ancestor in training." I've read Amina's Voice by Hena Khan, and Yo Soy reminds me of similar themes from that book, but this is better in its tender writing and gorgeous illustrations. There are questions this work will ask. What are you? And where are you from? And there will come a day when some people in the world will not smile at you." How many young children in our country have faced just this othering? How many have felt betrayed and ashamed? How many have tried to hide their heritage in a desperate effort to blend in? "Tell them this: Yo soy Muslim. I am from Allah, angels, and a place almost as old as time. I speak Spanish, Arabic, and dreams. Mi abuelo worked the fields. My ancestors did amazing things and so will I."

Strega Nona by Tomie dePaola
Category: Children's Picture Book
Comments: We chuckled over this delightful Italian folktale. (Ever heard those deep belly laughs of the very young? Make my day so much sweeter.) "In a town of Calabria, a long time ago, there lived an old lady everyone called Strega Nona, which meant 'Grandma Witch.'" And so begins a story, which involves potions, silly hotheaded young men, small village life where everyone is in everyone else's business, and a magic pasta pot. Whenever, Strega Nona sang a special ditty to the pot, the pot would bubble and boil and fill with steaming hot pasta. Another ditty (and three secret kisses) would subside the pot's production. Unfortunately, the man-of-all-work Big Anthony only heard the ditties. You can guess what happens next. One day, when Strega Nona was out, he called all the neighbors over and asked the clay pot to make everyone dinner. But the pot wouldn't stop making pasta, which soon filled the streets and upset the mayor and everyone called for Big Anthony's blood. Finally, Strega Nona had to come rescue him.

Are You There God? It's Me, Margaret. by Judy Blume
Category: Children's Fiction
Comments: It's an iconic pre-teen book from the 1970s. To my daughter, who also read the book at my behest, the protagonist, Margaret, was childish, naïve, and immature. I have self-aware kids, and so Margaret's behavior was a turn-off for both my daughter and I. Margaret's self-absorbed and selfish and turns on her closest friend just as easily as the perceived "other" person. There are no manners corrections from the parents and she never apologizes. She may confess her wrongdoings to God in her conversations with Him, but that doesn't translate into her being thoughtful or remorseful enough to take corrective action. Kindness and empathy, if not innate, needs to be actively inculcated. I was also taken aback at how provincial this girl from The Big City is despite all the cultural exposure her grandmother gives her. On a positive note, her ongoing conversation with God is sweet—it is where she reveals her innermost feelings and fears. It is comforting for her to have someone with whom she can be completely honest and feel they're in her corner.

Wednesday, September 6, 2017

My July Reading

I have neglected my blog shamefully in the past few weeks. I had hoped to cover my accounting of my reading in July in my usual monthly post, but I didn't have a chance to get that post written. So I thought I would do a joint post for July and August.

Well, lo and behold, August brought with it a meltdown at my daughter's school and sending us scrambling to find an alternate school as well as participate in parent activism to shore up the school it could start on time. To cut a long story short, we succeeded very well. The school opened its doors a week late but with a strong teacher presence. The students are back in school, the administration is trucking along, etc. etc.

However, in all of this, my reading suffered. I got not a single book read in August. Not a one. I can't remember the last time this has ever happened. Not a day goes by when I have not read a book; not a week goes by when I have not finished a book. And yet, here, a whole month went by with nary a page read. So I come to you with only the short list of books that I read in July.

The Horse Dancer by Jojo Moyes
Category: General Fiction
Comments: Sarah is a fourteen-year-old girl living in one of the projects of London with her grandfather, Henri. Boo is her horse, whom she loves with every particle of her being. Henri is training Sarah to become one of the écuyers of Le Cadre Noir, the premier French riding school, and this involves intense concentration and unrelenting perfectionism for both Boo and Sarah. In the meantime, Natasha Macauley is a solicitor-advocate, speaking up for the rights of children, whether they are teenagers seeking asylum, young hoodlums, or little children caught in the middle of acrimonious divorces. Her career, by its very nature and by her own ambitions, is all-consuming, leaving very little time for her husband, Max. How Natasha and Max resolve their differences and how Sarah's path crosses theirs is a story written with great finesse. I love Moyes's work—her storytelling and writing style really speaks to me. My review is here.

Beauty Like the Night by Joanna Bourne
Category: Historical Romance
Comments: Jo is a delight, online and offline. I enjoyed talking to her about her writing—her replies are so refreshingly honest, modest, and funny. And her books floor me every time I pick a new one up. I would rate every one of them among my most prized collection. While Black Hawk remains my most favorite, Beauty Like the Night, has a new fan. Comte Raoul Deverney is a vintner and a sometimes jewel thief, while Séverine de Cabrillac is a French aristocratic ex-spy and now a private detective in Regency London. Deverney hires Sévie, against her better judgment, to find Pilar, his former wife's daughter, who’s now lost in London’s stews. Together, they search for Pilar with growing urgency while Sévie's past rises up to engulf her. My review & interview are here.

Meet Me at Willoughby Close by Kate Hewitt
Category: Contemporary Romance
Comments: Wychwood-on-Lea is a quaint village in Oxfordshire, with organic farms stores, expensive clothing, and of course, Yummy Mummies, which all means keeping up with the Joneses. However, Ellie Mathews, a Northern transplant, is insecure and barely surviving and definitely not able to keep up with the sophisticated crowd she encounters in Wychwood-on-Lea. Along with her 11-year-old daughter, she has decided to make a fresh start in the Cotswolds, away from the domineering and cloying influence of her older sister and parents. Ellie's new boss, Dr. Oliver Venables, is a very well-respected Oxford don. She's to be his personal assistant and her main task is to type up his handwritten nonfiction manuscript on Victorian children. He's stiff and formal and exacting, and she makes a fool of herself from day one. But both notice their inexplicable attraction for the other. I saw "Oxford" and "village" in the book description and I bought the book, and I was delightfully rewarded. My review is here.

The Nearness of You by Dorothy Garlock
Category: Contemporary Fiction
Comments: I simply can't recommend this book. It had such promise: a hard-bitten photographer who travels to the world’s hotspots in pursuit of newsworthy photographs, is swept away by a small-town gal who’s seen nothing of the world. Despite that interesting start, the story falters almost immediately, brought low by overwriting and clichés. My review is here.

Lord Carew's Bride by Mary Balogh
Emily and the Dark Angel by Jo Beverley
All Through the Night by Connie Brockway
Category: Traditional Regency Romance
Comments: This is my first column covering three traditional Regency historical romances for Happy Ever After. All three of them I have read and re-read many times and consider them as among the top keepers of my collection. My brief reviews are here.

The 5 Misfits by Beatrice Alemagna
Category: Children's Picture Book
Comments: This is a story about five creatures who have something wrong with them and don't fit in society at large. Then along comes this perfect being who asks them what are they doing in their house. And they say nothing, because they mess everything up. The Perfect One then tells them that they need to "find a purpose, a plan, an idea! You are good for nothing. You are real nobodies", says and punctures their already-low self esteem. But in discussing themselves further with him, each of the misfits discovers their good qualities: one doesn't get upset, one always has happy thoughts, and so on and so forth. Then they realize, they're great all by themselves and they do not need the Perfect One. This is a book for preschoolers but displays the difference between British and American style of writing with its sophistication of language.

I am a Unicorn by Michaela Schuett
Category: Children's Picture Book
Comments: Why be a frog when you can be a unicorn? Well, that is what this one green frog thought. He stuck a horn on his forehead and a bunch of sparkly foil strings on his butt and called himself a unicorn. But his friend the goat was not impressed. Frog tries to convince Goat of all the ways he is a true unicorn by displaying all that he can do, including: "I eat flowers and toot rainbows." After a lot of frustrated haranguing, Goat convinces Frog that all he had was a good unicorn costume, Frog's can of Magical Unicorn Sprinkles burst open and transforms the green frog into a bonafide purple unicorn. He may still say "Ribbit," but he has a genuine horn and swish his genuine tail to the fascinated horror of Goat. Dreams do come true if you believe in them hard enough. This book is meant for the very young; preschoolers remain unimpressed.

Wednesday, August 16, 2017

No More #TBRChallenge Posts from Me for 2017

I'm sorry to be writing that I won't be participating in the 2017 TBR Reading Challenge any more this year. I have too much reading to do for the commitments I have recently made, as a result, I can't fit any more books in. I'm really sad to withdraw from the challenge that I've been participating in for a few years now. Hopefully, I'll have a better handle on my commitments in 2018 and can resume the challenge then. In the meantime, I will continue to read everyone's posts like I always do every third Wednesday of the month.

Tuesday, July 25, 2017

Some News...

I'm branching out a bit in my writing. In addition to continuing to review for All About Romance, I will be writing a column for USA TODAY's Happy Ever After and two columns for Macmillan Publishing's Heroes and Heartbreakers. So do watch out for me in those spaces as well. I love writing for All About Romance, and now I get to share my love of books in two more places!

Wednesday, July 19, 2017

#TBRChallenge Reading: Meet Me at Willoughby Close by Kate Hewitt

2017 TBR Reading Challenge
Book: Meet Me at Willoughby Close
Author: Kate Hewitt
Category: Contemporary Small-Town Light British Romance
Wendy Crutcher's Theme: Series Catch-Up

I cheated with this book. It met the theme of the month but not the spirit of the challenge. The book spent one week on my TBR.

Last year, I read Hewitt's A Cotswold Christmas that sets up Wychwood-on-Lea, a quaint village in Oxfordshire, with organic farms stores, expensive clothing, and of course, Yummy Mummies, which all means keeping up with the Joneses. However, in Meet Me at Willoughby Close , we meet Ellie Mathews, a Northern transplant, insecure and barely surviving, definitely not able to keep up with the sophisticated crowd she encounters in Wychwood-on-Lea.

Ellie is a divorced, single mom of a pre-teen who decides to make a fresh start in the Cotswolds. She wants to move away from the domineering and cloying influence of her older sister and parents, who've always been so very helpful in her times of difficulty but have also been so disappointed with her life choices. Ellie has been cowed by them.

Ellie's 11-year-old daughter Abby has been bullied for three years in her primary school in Manchester, which has had a deleterious effect on her personality and body language. Ellie hopes that Oxfordshire will prove to be a fresh start for Abby also, helping to restore her self-confidence and optimism.

Their beginning is inauspicious. Abby continues to shy away from being friendly with the kids in her new school and they, in turn, leave her alone. However, Abby forms an unprecedented bond with the elderly Lady Stokeley of Wychwood Manor, their landlord, which turns her life around and brings her out of her shell. The two understand each other in a way that is unfathomable to Ellie, who feels uncomfortable and unwelcome in Lady Stokeley's presence.

In the meantime, Ellie has met her boss Dr. Oliver Venables, a very well-respected Oxford don. She's to be his personal assistant and her main task is to type up his handwritten nonfiction manuscript on Victorian children. He's stiff and formal and exacting, and she makes a fool of herself from day one. But both notice their inexplicable attraction for the other.

Nothing much happens between them in the first half of the book, which is devoted to the setting up of their respective storylines. Their paths begin to converge more and more past the halfway mark.

I will admit, I spent the first half of the book hating it. I couldn't stand Ellie and thought her whiny and ungrateful. I'm a huge fan of competency: either inherent or learned. Ellie has neither. She doesn't try hard enough and feels entitled that things should go swimmingly for her all the time. Her ingratitude towards her family, who bailed her out multiple times despite her own bad choices, is a testament to her lack of appropriate recognition of it.

However, once Oliver's and her relationship starts developing, Ellie matures, and her growth arc then makes her more responsible and compassionate. I started liking the story thence—however, I never quite got over my initial dislike—Oliver's proficiency has a tempering effect on her, and she has to rise up to meet his level and it's to her benefit. Hewitt has done an excellent job of showing this character growth.

Hewitt's light touch with humor is well-done. So if you like the English village setting and a humorous bent to the story, this may be for you.

Saturday, July 8, 2017

#TBRChallenge Reading: The Black Angel by Barbara Samuel

2017 TBR Reading Challenge
Book: The Black Angel
Author: Barbara Samuel
Category: Georgian Romance with the Marriage of Convenience trope
Wendy Crutcher's Theme: Favorite Trope

My most enlightening moment while reading The Black Angel was when Samuel showed that a person can have two good sexual relationships in their lifetime. The first one doesn't have to be bad in order for the second one to be good. What an empowering sex-positive outlook in a book written in 1999! I wish more modern-day historicals would emulate this point of view.

It is true that the first man did turn out to be a cad at the end of the relationship by publicly spurning her and shaming her in front of her peers, but while their relationship was going strong, it was a satisfying intimate connection. Malvern was not abusive or stingy with sexual favors, and Adriana enjoyed herself fully, while not becoming too involved emotionally with him.

Five years ago, Adriana St. Ives, daughter of the Earl of Albury, decided to take Lord Malvern, Baron of Wye and bastard son of the King's brother's mistress, as her lover. Having just returned from Martinique for her first season in the Georgian court of the 1780s, Adriana was ardently pursued by Malvern. She resisted for many months, but finally gave in. She was well aware that Malvern did not offer marriage, only carte blanche, but she accepted anyway. She was heedless of the harm to her reputation and to that of her father and siblings. Friend and acquaintances labeled her as headstrong and selfish.

However, Malvern's bad behavior at the end of their relationship caused Adriana's oldest brother, Julian, to call him out, and the resulting duel ended in Malvern's death and Julian and his brother Gabriel's being labeled as outcasts and banished from England's shores. Adriana's father died heartbroken, his daughter's reputation in tatters and his sons languishing in foreign lands.

Fast forward five years, and penury leads Adriana to accept the suit of Tynan Spenser, the wealthy Earl of Glencove from Ireland. In return for her political influence, he would provide the estate with the cash infusion it sorely needs.

Their wedding day is the first time either of them claps eyes on each other and while Adriana is dazzled by Tynan' beauty, Tynan is disappointed by her lack thereof. Adriana is determined to resist her desire for Tynan, ever mindful of her weakness for the sensual arts. For five years, she's buried herself in the country and kept herself inviolate from storming emotions. Tynan tears her safe world apart by compelling her to come alive again.

The day after the wedding, Julian and Gabriel charge up to the estate from their exile in an attempt to save Adriana from her marriage, only to realize that it's too late. Julian's presence back in England makes him vulnerable again to the scandal of the duel. Malvern's mother, mistress to many in the House of Lords, refuses to let the scandal die. Through her influence, many are determined to make an example of the young earl in outlawing dueling, and Julian is imprisoned in the Tower of London. Julian's incarceration and impending trial is the background on which Adriana's and Tynan's romance unfolds.

I must draw attention to the multicultural cast of characters here. Adriana's father's mistress in Martinique is a freed slave from whom he has two children. What is unusual is that Lord Albury raises these children in Martinique along with the three children from his deceased wife. And he brings his multicultural family back to live in England in a society full of prejudice. I loved Albury for bringing his children up as equals and I loved that the children all love each other equally. (I so wish Samuel would've written all of their stories, so we could see what Georgian society looked like from their eyes and how they managed to make their way in life.)

I had a few issues with some of the motivations in the story.

The whole, buying a seat in the English Parliament to influence the Irish Protestants to be kinder to the Irish Catholics, idea seems far-fetched and misguided. It is the main driving force of Tynan's story in the book and it's a thin pretext to bring him to England. It is true that he admits as much towards the end, but for a supposedly intelligent, level-headed man, he should've never thought this a viable plan. Also inexplicable is how a beleaguered Adriana tarnished by her scandal can provide the political capital that will allow Tynan to buy the parliamentary seat.

The influence Adriana's father wielded over young Tynan seems rather tenuous and incomprehensible. Why would the Earl of Albury choose a young Irish earl as a consort for his eldest daughter? Samuuel explains how the two corresponded and built up a mentor-mentee relationship, but how did this get started in the first place? After all, Albury spent years in Martinique and then was submerged in the scandal perpetuated by Adriana.

The end was rushed given how important it is to Tynan. Somehow, Adriana's life choices and challenges take up so much real estate in the story, that Tynan's are only worried over at the edges of the story. It is true that Julian's life is at stake, but so are the lives of dozens of Catholic men and women on Tynan's estates and surrounding villages in Ireland. Surely, his thoughts and actions should've been aimed more there than with saving Adriana's reputation and her brother's life.

And yet, despite the issues mentioned above, I read this book with the enjoyment and appreciation that comes from reading a complex tale by a great author. Samuel does not shy away from the tricky emotional and moral decisions her characters need to make at different points in the story. None of her characters are required to be likeable at all points in the story. It is okay for the characters to be people, by degrees unaccountable, impenetrable, and foolish, while also displaying uncommon bravery and goodness. Ambiguity is not a negative. Samuel simply asks the reader to have faith in her ability to show her main characters growing into people with integrity and grit and maturity even if the growth is not a smooth curve.

Saturday, July 1, 2017

My Interview with Vassiliki Veros

The ever amazing and fellow romance and children's books enthusiast, Vassiliki Veros, did a fun interview of me for her blog Shallowreader: barely scratching the surface. Here's the transcript.

Wednesday, June 28, 2017

My June Reading

I continued my foray into Traditional Regency Romances with a lot of Balogh and a touch of Overfield. I also read Julie James as a palate cleanser. Balogh's trads have storylines that over the years have become tropes, so it was great to see what the original plots looked like.

Under a Sardinian Sky by Sara Alexander
Category: General Fiction
Comments: Sometimes a family's deepest silences hide the most important secrets. What an evocative story, redolent with hidden passions and a deep abiding love rising from the ashes of mistrust, despair, and duty. Set in a small town of Sardinia in the 1950s, native resident and gifted seamstress Carmela Chiringoni meets American Captain Joe Kavanagh. While Carmela is engaged to a jealously possessive fiancé, Joe is married. She is hired as his interpreter and so begins their relationship. My review is here.

A Temporary Wife by Mary Balogh
Category: Traditional Regency Romance
Comments: This is one of those perfect romances, where the emphasis is on romance rather than a lot of extracurricular activity. And within the scope of the category-sized story, Balogh delivers a master class on writing a Marriage of Convenience plot. My review is here.

The Ideal Wife by Mary Balogh
Category: Traditional Regency Romance
Comments: Someone told me not to read The Ideal Wife right after The Temporary Wife, because of the similarity of the plot. So I proceeded to do exactly that: examine how an author works almost the exact same premise twice. This iteration was less successful than Temporary, because the characters felt more caricature than heartfelt. In the above book, I could understand the characters' motivations and why they did what they did; in this book it felt more on a whim and tedious.

The worst aspect of the book was the heroine's predilection for unnecessary volubility. It was cute at first, because the last thing the Earl of Severn wanted was a managing talkative wife. Guess what kind of female cousin he rescues from impoverishment? She looked meek and submissive at first glance, but turned out to be a loquacious virago after the wedding. I spent most of the book feeling sorry for him, because Abby quickly began to grate on my nerves. After reading a few paragraphs of her speech, I started skipping every time she spoke, which didn't bode well for her character development. I'd give this one a miss, if I were you.

A Promise of Spring by Mary Balogh
Category: Traditional Regency Romance
Comments: Fabulous story of a young ingénue, a marriage of convenience, and a spouse ten years older—only that, the hero is the young innocent and the heroine the older experienced. This book is a true commentary on how a couple, who've known each other peripherally but are now yoked together, negotiates marriage. Powerful, powerful story with moments of such tenderness. A must read! My review is here.

A Chance Encounter by Mary Balogh
Category: Traditional Regency Romance
Comments: The story starts with a "Netherfield Park has been let at last," kind of a storyline. Mr. Mainwaring is Mr. Bingley here and comes with his Mr. Darcy-like friend, the Marquess of Heatherington. Both men create a stir in the countryside neighborhood and set many young hearts pitter-patter. Among them is a stoic spinster in her mid-twenties, Elizabeth Rossiter, working as a governess-cum-companion in a prominent gentleman's household.

SPOILER: Unbeknownst to everyone, Heatherington is Elizabeth's husband. For six years, they have set aside their marriage and refused to speak to each other. Distance has only served to embitter them. Little did either of them know that they would be in the same neighborhood at the same time and be forced to be civil to each other. When young Heatherington and Elizabeth had been deeply in love, Heatherington's uncle was dead set against their marriage and sought to wreck it and succeeded.

This story is the classic Big Misunderstanding. I'm usually not a fan of it at all, but this time, I considered it as one of the first instances of a storyline that has now become a trope, and it's a Balogh, so I persisted with it. At one point I tweeted, I'm at 92% mark in my digital book and the H/H haven't reconciled yet or are even in the same county. But Balogh makes the story work.

The Sinister Spinster by Carolyn Madison / Joan Overfield
Category: Traditional Regency Romance
Comments: I picked up this book because it involved foreign diplomacy with a spot of spying and detecting. While there are a plethora of Regency historical romances involving spying by the nobility, diplomacy is an under-utilized plotline. An alliance with Russia in 1814 in the wake of Napoléon’s destructive path through Europe was of crucial importance to international relations, so I was hoping to see more politics and not the murder mystery that this book focused on. Ultimately, this proved to be its weak point. It tried to do too much in the beginning and so set the story up with a complexity that failed in the execution. By the end, even the mystery failed to satisfy and the heroine's behavior towards the hero was a big no-no. My review is here.

The Thing About Love by Julie James
Category: Contemporary Romance
Comments: In recent years, Julie James's books have received much acclaim from critics and readers. I really enjoyed her first two books, but was meh about a couple of the other ones. However, this book was much touted, so I decided to give James a go again, and the results have been mixed. James has gotten better and more assured over the years. She does good characterization and plotting—I liked the story.

My problem with James is the voice. I enjoy her humor, so it's not her comedic voice that doesn't go over well, but it's the hyper-contemporary, deliberately-breezy style that doesn't work for me. This book will be dated in five years, not only for the frequent popular culture references, that are not momentous enough to have a long shelf life, but also for the writing style that is so reflective of Twitter-style. Don't get me wrong: She's not writing in sound bites or the compressed tweet-style of sentencing, but rather employs frequent use of slang that you find only online, but is not in common parlance.

The other problem I had with this book, that I don't remember if other books had, was the repeated mentions of the protagonists' motivations—in this case, their joint past and why the hero decides to choose this new job he does. These motivations don't have to be replicated over and over again. And then after having set up why the hero chooses to go away from the heroine forever, his change-of-heart comes about too conveniently and unconvincingly.

In general, I don't see why one character has to give up what they love to do in order to win the love of the other. Yes, sacrifice and compromise do exist in real life, but abandoning a career, they had agonizingly professed over and over again they love, is so unnecessary. It immediately raises the specter of future disenchantment in their HEA.

Caring for Your Lion by Tammi Sauer, illustrated by Troy Cummings
Category: Children's Picture Book
Comments: "Congratulations on your new lion! We know you ordered a kitten, but we ran out of those. Luckily, a lion is practically the same thing! Caring for your lion is easy. Just follow this handy guide." Are you dismayed? The boy in the book sure was when he saw the huge box outside his front door. The only accessory the lion came is a feather, so that in case the lion swallows you, you can tickle him in the tummy, till he throws you up. Yeah! It's very much a book meant to induce giggles.

T.Veg: The Story of a Carrot-Crunching Dinosaur by Smriti Prasadam-Halls, illustrated by Katherina Manolessou
Category: Children's Picture Book
Comments: This darling dinosaur could roar, stomp, gnash, and leap with the best of them, but he did not fit in at mealtimes with his dinosaur friends. While others munched on juicy steaks, he ate crunchy carrots, broccoli, grapes, and greens. Everyone laughs at him all the time, and so finally, he runs away from home hoping to find better friends who will understand him more. On his journey, he looks for herbivore dinosaurs. When he finds them, he's delighted, but they flee in terror. What is he to do?

Over in the Ocean In a Coral Reef by Marianne Berkes, illustrated by Jeanette Canyon
Category: Children's Picture Book
Comments: This is a gorgeous book for the very young with ceramic concentric circle designs of the ocean floor with detailed and highly colorful drawings of sea animals on top. It's a counting book with repetitive rhymes that explains the characteristics of different sea creatures. For example, octopi squirt, parrotfish grind, and pufferfish puff. We have read this book over and over again.

Monday, June 5, 2017

My May Reading

I have read so much Romance this year as compared to previous years, that I'm convinced that the political situation is to blame for this. I crave comforting and soothing in my reading, even as I foam at the mouth and determinedly pursue activism through my work with a local organization and on local candidates' campaigns.

Dukes Prefer Blondes by Lorette Chase
Categories: Regency Historical Romance
Comments: I loved this book from start to finish. This is Chase at her finest, and now I have a new addition to my list of Favorite Books of All Time. I say this often but it bears repeating: I adore characters who resolve their differences in frank conversation and display maturity and manners. I abhor flouncing, sulking, and big long misunderstandings because the characters refuse to talk to each other. This book has honesty and directness sprinkled liberally with intelligence and humor. Competency is so attractive! I recommend you read this book just for the dialogue if not for the story as well. My review is here.

It's You by Jane Porter
Categories: General Fiction with Romantic Elements
Comments: I have loved Jane Porter’s women’s fiction since I read the almost autobiographical Flirting with Forty and Odd Mom Out. I also like Porter herself for her kindness and generosity, both characteristics that are prevalent in her characters. It’s You is a story within a story, one set in contemporary Napa Valley about a dentist from Scottsdale and the other in Berlin during World War II about a language translator for the American Embassy. The book tells of two bright, strong American women torn apart by tragedy and surviving to find a second chance. My review is here.

Dating the Millionaire Doctor by Marion Lennox
Category: Medical Category Romance
Comments: This was my first medical category romance, and the medical details acted as a strong undercurrent to the story and really drew me in. Set in the gorgeous Australian bush, it was interesting to see how an Australian country veterinarian and a high-powered urban anesthesiologist from Manhattan find common ground and love. I look forward to reading more medical romance by Lennox. My review is here.

The Lawrence Browne Affair by Cat Sebastian
Category: m/m Historical Romance
Comments: In a bid to read outside my usual norm, I chose this much-lauded book—playing it safe there. And I was not disappointed. Sebastian gets the historical period right and the Beauty and the Beast romance right. Lawrence Browne, the Earl of Radnor, thinks he is mad. The people in the village believe he is mad. In reality, he's merely eccentric and a brilliant inventor and researcher. Georgie Turner is a handsome thief and confidence artist posing as a secretary. When he took up the post, little did he realize that Penkellis and Radnor would wake up a latent conscience and sense of duty in him. I loved how sensitively, Sebastian handles the two men's characters, their growing attraction, and how they open up to each other in all their vulnerability. My review is here.

Glitterland by Alexis Hall
Category: m/m Contemporary Romance
Comments: This is a noteworthy book, and I’m glad I read it. However, I found it a difficult read, mainly because we’re told the story from Ash’s POV, which wasn't unreliable per se, just variant depending on the manifestation of his mental illness symptoms. I would’ve liked to have seen some of the scenes from Darian’s POV; in fact, it would’ve been interesting to have seen a few of the same scenes from both their POVs to have provided a better feel for the disparity in their characterizations.

There's a big grovel scene towards the end. While as a general rule, I’m not fond of grovels, because it puts one character with more power over the other, in this book's case, Ash truly needed to atone. However, I would’ve liked to have seen a longer time spent in the reconciliation and togetherness part of their relationship, so that I could believe in the longevity and sincerity of their HFN.

Miss Westlake's Windfall by Barbara Metzger
Category: Traditional Regency Romance
Comments: Ada Westlake doesn't consider herself a fool, though as her age to whistling a handsome, titled, wealthy man down the wind is nothing short of foolishness. But she believes that she's not the bride for Viscount Ashmead, and if she steadfastly continued refusing his proposals, he will look elsewhere for a more suitable bride. As is inevitable, his mother invites a whole passel of demure misses to tempt him, much to Ada's dismay and secret jealousy. This is a delightful romance, witty and charming, and I enjoyed Ashmead's gentle beta-ness.

Miss Lockharte's Letters by Barbara Metzger
Category: Traditional Regency Romance
Comments: Miss Rosellen Lockharte is a penmanship teacher at Miss Merrihew's Select Academy for Young Females of Distinction. She's very sick with the influenza that swept through the school and believes herself to be dying. In her last hour, she wants nothing more than to settle a score with half a dozen individuals, which does by wielding her pen as a sword, and without mincing words, she manages to impale all her victims those who brought her grief. One such individual was Viscount Stanford, the brother of her student and fried, Susan Alton. Susan convinces Rosellen that he would be willing to take her away with them so as to offer her a new lease on life and an opportunity to meet her own eligible parti. However, unthinkingly, he rescinds Susan's invitation, thereby crushing Rosellen's every hope.

This story was perhaps less successful than the one above, because of its tendency to sometimes descend to farce where the Merrihews were concerned. However, the opening chapters are strong, distinctive, and very enjoyable. The romance is perhaps tepid by modern historical romance standards, but it appealed to me. One caution I have is that other than that earlier five-minute meeting, Rosellen and Stanford's story together truly doesn't begin until the 40% mark. While this bothered me not a whit, it might not be the same for others.

Desperate Measures by Candice Hern
Category: Traditional Regency Romance Short Story
Comments: Set in 1810, this is a romance that takes place in one evening at a ball. Young Lydia Bettridge is suffering from the pangs of unrequited love. She’s desperate to have her brother’s friend, the Golden God, Geoffrey Danforth notice her, so she and another of her brother’s friends, Phillip, hatch a plot to make Geoffrey jealous. What follows is a story of young but mature, sensible protagonists and a slightly-hotter-than-usual trad. I enjoyed seeing how Lydia grew in confidence from the beginning of the evening to the end—good romance arc for a short story. My review is here.

Lady Ann's Excellent Adventure by Candice Hern
Category: Traditional Regency Romance Short Story
Comments: I loved this book! It is one of the best traditional historicals I've read. Over the course of one long day, these two affianced-since-the-cradle strangers meet under assumed names and become fast friends. Both the Earl of Evesham and Lady Ann of Gloucester had been reluctantly determined to do their duty to the other and their families. And yet, over the course of this day, they can't help falling in love with each other as plain Will and Annie. This discovery of beauty, of wonder, of specialness is what great romance is all about. My review is here.

Wednesday, May 24, 2017

Dukes Prefer Blondes by Loretta Chase

Loretta Chase has written a few books that fall in my "favorite books of all time" list and have brought me hours of reading and re-reading pleasure. Dukes Prefer Blondes is the newest addition. I was leery of picking up such a highly-praised book, however, I decided to trust the reviews and go for it. And I am so glad I did! Dukes Prefer Blondes is vintage Chase with frank, witty dialog and a deeply emotional connection between the characters.

Oliver "Raven" Radford is part of the laboring branch of the Radfords despite being the grandson of a duke; to wit, he is a barrister prosecuting criminals even as he mingles with them to prepare his cases. "The beau monde and I are not well acquainted, for obvious reasons, I should think, they spending little time in criminal courts, and I being gainfully employed therein."

Lady Clara Fairfax is a diamond of the first water, being feted by the ton and regularly proposed to by her beaus. In other words, she is bored. So she volunteers at the Milliners' Society for the Education of Indigent Females started by the former Misses Noirot, who are now related to her by marriage. She is most concerned about the welfare of fifteen-year-old Bridget Coppy, whose brother has been impressed into a gang of boys from London's stews.

Radford and Clara meet when he rescues her from a gig about to run her down. "I daresay you noticed nothing about him?" he asked. "But why do I ask a pointless question? Everybody flies into a panic and nobody pays attention. Well, then. Not injured, my lady? No swooning? No tears? Excellent. Good day." And he turns away. But he is brought up short by her extremely acute descriptions of the scene, the driver, the tiger, and the carriage. She has taken him by surprise, but to her surprise, he doesn't labor under the assumption that women have no brains to speak of. He's pleased with her detailed observations and she, in turn, is pleased with his casual "Well done" that is praise and acceptance of her talent as commonplace.

As the story moves forward, both of them realize that they'd met before in their childhood. He was a friend of her brother's and they had once spent an entire day together when he decided to entertain her to ward off her disappointment in her brothers' indifference. That day had ended when she flew into a fight on his behalf and chipped her tooth. And to this day, she continues to champion those whose voices have been flattened by society.

The entire romance between Clara and Raven unfolds from these twin threads: the dialog and the work. Put two bright, intelligent, "with it" people together, stir in some antagonism and reserve, and watch the mixture bubble and hiss and spit articulately and humorously. Chase uses language so sparingly and purposefully, it makes the lean ripostes crackle with wit and pointed observations. "Women had to overlook men's personality flaws, else nobody would ever wed or reproduce & the human race would come to an end."

I liked how passionate both Clara and Raven are about their duties. It was very interesting to look into the daily doings of a barrister in Regency London and to see how a missing child may be found in the East End. (You have to believe in the soupçon of luck required, of course.)

Some unfortunate shortcuts, such as repeatedly describing Clara's maid, Davis, as a bulldog in looks to match her loyal tenacity could've been avoided, but overall, these are minor quibbles in an otherwise overwhelmingly fabulous story. I first borrowed this book from the library, but now I have my own copy for future re-reads.

Wednesday, May 17, 2017

#TBRChallenge Reading: The Lawrence Browne Affair by Cat Sebastian

2017 TBR Reading Challenge
Book: The Lawrence Browne Affair
Author: Cat Sebastian
My Categories: m/m Historical Romance
Wendy Crutcher's Category: Something Different (outside your usual reading)

This is my first m/m story, and I'm so glad I débuted with Cat Sebastian. She gets the Regency era just right, and she does a true Beauty and the Beast story.

Lawrence Browne, the Earl of Radnor, thinks he is mad. The people in the village believe he is mad. In reality, he's merely eccentric and a brilliant inventor and researcher. He has a touch of agoraphobia and an extreme shyness with people that makes him hide away in his disgusting, crumbling manor at Penkellis at the mercy of the handful of diehard servants. In a bid to save this lord, the Reverend writes a letter to his friend in London, begging him to send Radnor a secretary.

Enter handsome thief and confidence artist posing as a secretary. When he took up the post, little did Georgie Turner realize that Penkellis and Radnor would wake up a latent conscience and sense of duty in him. Of course, being wildly attracted to the large, gorgeous earl acts as a good prod to said conscience. In London, Turner was a thief who's on the run from a colleague out for his blood. In Cornwall, Turner is a hardworking secretary with patience and good organizational skills.

I loved how sensitively, Sebastian handles the two men's characters, their growing attraction, and how they open up to each other in all their vulnerability.

With a single, menacing forefinger, Lawrence touched Turner's chest. He had meant for the gesture to be intimidating, but it felt strangely intimate. Before he knew what had happened, Turner had taken hold of Lawrence's large, calloused hands in his own fine ones. Lawrence didn't know if the man was motivated by kindness or self-defense, but he found that he was holding hands with a person for the first time since he was a child.

While Radnor is no virgin, yet his experience is limited, and in recent years, nonexistent. So he is very susceptible to Turner's advances. I felt such tenderness for Radnor as he assumes his every moment of desire for Turner is a sign of incipient madness. Turner, in turn, is the experienced one but affection and admiration had never before been part of his dealings with his partners, and he is flummoxed by what Radnor brings out in him.

These two men from such disparate backgrounds come together as such equals—I loved that about this book. Neither disdains the other for who they are, what they do, or their past. They're concerned with who they are with each other. The Lawrence Browne Affair is such a romantic tale! Not to be missed.

Wednesday, May 10, 2017

My April Reading

Keira and romantic comedy? Who'd've thunk?! But Lucy Parker's books were a revelation to me, and I loved them so much, I can hardly wait for her next one. This doesn't mean that I'm going to dive into RomCom now. I doubt it, because whatever I have read in the past has been, ah, execrable not for me. (Convince me otherwise, please!) Nevertheless, I will read whatever Lucy Parker writes.

Act Like It by Lucy Parker
Pretty Face by Lucy Parker
Categories: RomCom
Comments: How I LOVED these two books: the snappy dialog, the wit, the modern characterization, the London theater scene, all of it so detailed and well-tuned. Parker's talent is in building tight, complex relationships that don't feel rushed or smoothened out. All the problems are out in the open, and they are all dealt with. There're no deus ex machina events that magically get characters out of the tight spots they put themselves in. Act Like It was a far funnier and tighter book than Pretty Face, but both are good. My review is here.

Artistic License by Elle Pierson
Categories: Contemporary Romance
Comments: Lucy Parker also writes as Elle Pierson but in a different vein. This is a sweet, gentle story of two socially awkward, diffident people finding freedom and love and trust with each other. How wonderful is that! Each thinks the other is wonderful and talented, and while neither can talk much to most other people, they can talk up a storm with each other. She's an introvert and he thinks he is ugly. This is their meet cute: Sophy James is a twenty-something art student on a tour of a gallery hosting the art collection of the Ryland Curry Corporation in Queenstown, New Zealand. Mick Hollister is the security guard hired to guard the touring collection. While Sophy and her fellow students of the Dunedin Art School were supposed to study and sketch some of the art, Sophy was not-so-secretly sketching Mick. He's irritated by her attention while also reveling in it. My review is here.

Of Thee I Sing by Barack Obama
Categories: Children's Picture Book
Comments: I cried as I read this book—it made me proud and it touched me, even as I absorbed the book with my mind and heart. The book covers the important figures of our nation's history with a paucity of words and a wealth of meaning. Obama is telling his kids how wonderful they are and how the beauty and hardships, successes and failures of history are all part of them. He touches upon the bravery of Jackie Robinson, the brilliance of Einstein, the creativity of O'Keefe, the healing power of Sitting Bull, the strength of Helen Keller, the emotional depth of Maya Lin, the kindness of Jane Addams, the persistence of Martin Luther King Jr., the bravery of Neil Armstrong, the inspiration of Cesar Chavez, the pride of Lincoln, and others.

"Have I told you that America is made up of people of every kind? People of all races, religions, and beliefs. People front the coastlines and the mountains. people who have made bright lights shine by sharing their unique gifts and giving us the courage to lift one another up, to keep up the fight, to work and build upon all that is good in our nation."

Goodnight from London by Jennifer Robson
Categories: General Fiction
Comments: Set in London during the 1940s, Robson brings the whole wartime atmosphere alive with great characterization and excellent setting. No detail was deemed too small to get right: journalism jobs, character thoughts and actions, pop culture references, the effects of the Blitz on the people and the city structures, and subsisting on the rationing of everything. The gentle, trusting romance is the icing on the top. Ruby Sutton is a young, ambitious American journalist, who's offered a plum assignment to move to London in the summer of 1940 to report on the war. She's great at her job and very passionate about it. The whole wartime journalism aspect of the story is done superbly well. My discussion of the book with two other reviewers is here.

All Through the Night by Connie Brockway
Categories: Regency Romance
Comments: My Dearest Enemy and All Through the Night are among my top favorite romances of all time. ATTN is a story of two strongly adversarial characters who fight their natures, their jobs, and society's constraints for the right to love one another.

Emily and the Dark Angel by Jo Beverley
Categories: Traditional Regency Romance
Comments: Put two perfectly disparate, but highly memorable people together and watch the sparks fly and love blossom. What a great book by a great author.

Whispering Palms by Rosalind Brett
Categories: Contemporary 1979 Romance
Comments: Alas, this book did not hold up to the test of time. It had racism, a brusque domineering wealthy hero, a formerly brave but now doormat heroine, a scheming beautiful older sister, and gorgeous African countryside. Africa was the only secondary character with anything positive going for it—I enjoyed reading about the description of countryside living in the mid-to-late 20th century. Unfortunately, we see only Caucasians in roles of power and wealth with casual racism running rampant through the narrative. Africa is a backdrop, a painting drop-cloth to the story, but it was unable to save it from its cheesiness. I got this 1979 Mills & Boon from a library book sale, and I won't get back the time I invested in it. Back to the library it goes, to be visited upon another hapless soul. Perhaps I should be kind and simply recycle it.

The Rake to Rescue Her by Julia Justiss
Categories: Historical Romance
Comments: I adore Julia Justiss's work but I just wasn't in the mood for the type of second-chance love this proved to be in the first few chapters. It was a DNF for me, and I felt very silently apologetic to Justiss for abandoning her book. In what little I read, the writing is as usual very good. My beef was with the type of story and the characters. The whole tragedy surrounding Diana and why she spurned the young Alastair's love so cruelly in front of all the ton after having professed her love for him was melodramatic and unbelievable. I simply could not move forward from there.

Wednesday, April 19, 2017

#TBRChallenge Reading: Act Like It & Pretty Face by Lucy Parker

2017 TBR Reading Challenge
Book: Act Like It and Pretty Face
Author: Lucy Parker
My Categories: Contemporary RomCom
Wendy Crutcher's Category: Contemporary

Act Like It was recommended to me on Twitter, and I loved it so much, that I immediately turned around and read Pretty Face. AAR and Twitter folks, recommended PF over ALI, but while PF was a 'A' read for me, ALI was a decided 'A+'.

In Act Like It, actress Lainie Graham has a lead role in a play running at the Metronome Theatre in London. In her off-stage life, she'd been involved with lead actor Will Farmer, but she has recently found out via the tabloids that she's been dumped. I admired how well she was coping, personally and professionally. The other leading man, Richard Troy, comes from wealth and the upper classes and has an overly-developed sense of self-importance to go with it. His temper tantrums and bad behavior has been affecting his public image and starting to affect the box office, so his publicist and the director ambush Lainey to convince her to commence a faux relationship with him so that her London's Sweetheart image will burnish his image. In return, the director will donate some of the box office take to Lainey's favorite charity.

In Pretty Face, actress Lily Lamprey has a body, face, and high, light voice that's well-suited to a sexy TV soap but ill-suited for West End London theater. Luc Savage is a highly respected director, who's coerced into taking Lily on. To their dismay, they discover instant chemistry, which would be highly detrimental to Lily's reputation and future theater career ("dumb bunny sleeps her way into a role" being the expected headline).

The simple setups of the enemies-to-lovers story for ACI and the May-December Romance story for PF ensure that all the focus is on the relationships. Usually, I look for complexity in a story with more happening around and to the characters than simple relationship development. However, with these two books, perversely, I felt glad that they were lacking in a plethora of calamities being visited upon their characters. Lucy Parker's talent is in building tight, complex relationships that don't feel rushed or smoothened out. All the problems are out in the open, and they are all dealt with. There're no deus ex machina events that magically get characters out of tight spots they put themselves in.

The writing in both books is sharp and funny, and the stories move along swiftly and very assuredly. The books have a breezy irreverent tone to it that belies the serious nature of the choices the characters have to make. The language felt London-based to me as did the characterization and the setting of the London theater scene. The theater details are well-researched and used sparingly and very effectively—a smooth immersion for the reader. I always find myself noting in my reviews when characters behave in a mature manner to resolve there differences since it's not that common in romances, so I was very pleased to find that there was none of the pouting and flouncing in these books for which I have very little patience.

ALI was by far the funnier, tighter, well-integrated book as compared with PF. If you will read just one book, do make it Act Like It.

Tuesday, April 4, 2017

My March Reading

This month, I discovered a new-to-me historical romance author with a reasonably long backlist, and I really enjoyed the two books I read. I feel a glom coming on!

Forbidden Nights with the Viscount by Julia Justiss
Categories: Historical Romance
Comments: I enjoyed this story so much. It's about two characters on opposing sides of British politics, who're dizzily attracted to each other and respect and trust each other's political interests and desire to work. This to me is so romantic. Instead of merely languishing in each others' arms, they're debating politics when they're not having a fiery&8212;but very safe—affair. Neither is afraid to broach sensitive topics with each other, because doing the right thing for the other person is a sign of caring. Lovely! My review is here.

Stolen Encounters with the Duchess by Julia Justiss
Categories: Historical Romance
Comments: This is the second book after the one above. Davie and Faith had met when they were very young and had set up a good friendship—well, fondness on her part and love on his. But she was not destined for him, but for a duke. She is now widowed, but as a duchess and he a farmer's orphan, the social gulf between them is as vast as ever. Davie is still in love with her and wants to marry her; she wants to have an affair with him, which he will not do to safeguard her reputation and his. Another lovely story by Justiss. My review is here.

My Dearest Enemy by Connie Brockway
Categories: Victorian Romance
Comments: How much I love this book! I read it during my first heady foray into Romancelandia. I met Brockway first and loved her voice and humor so much, I had to pick up her books. My Dearest Enemy was the first, and then I didn't stop until I had bought and read her entire backlist and set up a Facebook group for her fans. Over the years, I have read and re-read this book many times, and it has never ceased to make me laugh over the vitriolic moments and sigh over the tender moments. It is such a lovely romantic tale.

Lilian Bede and Avery Thorne exchange fiery letters over five years as Avery travels the obscure parts of the globe while Lilian tries to maintain Mill House in good heart. Avery had been promised Mill House since he was a child, but in his waning days, his malevolent uncle decides to hand over the management to Lilian, with the proviso that should she fail to make the estate thrive, it will pass on to Avery. Distraught and angered by this, Avery takes to intrepid adventuring with gusto. The vitriolic and very creative letters are hilarious and made me fall in love with the characters as did their deepening romance when they meet. This is a story not to be missed.

King's Warrior by Kris Kennedy
Categories: Medieval Romance
Comments: I’m a big fan of medieval romances and have enjoyed all of Kris Kennedy’s full-length stories. She has a great grasp of the medieval psyche and behaviors, and she backs it up with meticulous research. Irish renegade Tadgh O'Malley was Richard the Lionhearted's trusted soldier, but he's on the run from the Holy Land back to England, carrying a special dagger from Richard. In a coastal town of France, he rescues Magdalene from been harassed by the port reeve's assistant. Captivated by her looks and her intelligent conversation, Tadgh cannot help but dally with her despite the danger to him and his mission from the baron and his soldiers who're hunting him for his dagger. After the destruction of her home and business by the soldiers, Magdalena realizes that there's nothing keeping her in France and throws her lot in with Tadgh. Her quick wit and presence of mind gets them out of tight spots, eve as they indulge their deepening—and hot—romance. A good medieval read! My review is here.

Claiming Her by Kris Kennedy
Categories: Elizabethan Romance
Comments: A hot Elizabethan romance with a medieval flavor. She's intelligent, stubborn, and loyal; he's charismatic, a courtier, and a warrior. She's the chatelaine of Rardove, a castle in Ireland with thousands of acres of land attached to it. He's Irish and up until now, loyal to Queen Elizabeth. But his ancestors were Lords of Rardove, and he means to be one, too. She's just as determined not to indulge in treason by marrying him. The romance is intense! My review is coming up on this blog later this month. I'll link back here, when it posts.

The Forbidden Garden by Ellen Herrick
Categories: Contemporary Women's Fiction
Comments: Sorrel Sparrow is a gifted gardener from a small town on the New England coast. She’s been lured away from her nursery business to travel to Wiltshire, England to bring a Shakespearean garden back to life. Is it a malevolent garden or merely a neglected, desolate one? As she works hard to resurrect it, she’s distracted by Sir Graham Kirkwood’s enigmatic, good-looking, rector, brother-in-law who’s currently out of a job. Animosity and sparks of a different kind fly between them, but will the garden’s enchantment allow their love to grow? My Review is here.

The Lost Order by Steve Berry
Categories: Dual Timeline Thriller
Comments: I’m very fond of historical intrigues that are more fact than fiction, and when such a book is skillfully entwined with fiction, where you don’t know where fact ends and fiction begins, it makes for a particularly enjoyable read. Note: You don’t want to miss the exciting Author’s Note at the end either, which reveals how much of the story is historically true. This is a story of the confederate Knights of the Golden Cross, from the time of the Civil War and the vast horde of gold they amassed and hid, and the storied history and machinations of the Smithsonian Institution, Museums, and Libraries. My Review is here.

Georgia Peaches and Other Forbidden Fruit by Jaye Robin Brown
Categories: Gay YA Fiction
Comments: If I didn't have to read this book for my romance book club, it would've been a DNF. I did not like the heroine who's self-absorbed and petty towards the other characters, and she does not change or grow over the book. The premise of the story is very interesting. Joanna Gordon is the daughter of a radio evangelist and is a person of faith and also gay. She moves to a small, religious town in her senior year after her father's marriage, where he essentially tells her to hide her gay-ness and dress like everybody else. When I picked the book up, I really wanted to know what she would do in this situation. The story had promise, but unfortunately, failed to deliver. My review is here.

Thursday, March 30, 2017

Stolen Encounters with the Duchess by Julia Justiss

I loved the first book of Julia Justiss's Hadley's Hellions series, Forbidden Nights with the Viscount, so I was eagerly looking forward to reading Stolen Encounters with the Duchess. Justiss has done the rare thing of following one good book with another.

Faith is the widowed duchess of the Duke of Ashedon. She has three children by him and now lives in London with his dragon of a mother and is being menaced by her brother-in-law. She was so cowed over the course of her marriage—her vibrancy and vitality so diminished—that she's still a timid thing at the start of the story. Her gradual growth and assertiveness in the book were very interesting to see.

David Tanner is a rising Member of Parliament—some think he might even become Prime Minister—and one of the architects of the Reform Bill that will give the common man some say in the government. The bill stands in good stead to pass the House of Commons; the House of Lords is an entirely different matter. So Davie is involved in a lot of politicking along with the four friends, who're known as the Hellions since their Oxford days. He's a loyal friend, a hard worker, a passionate believer in people's rights, and deeply honorable.

But this is also Davie: After having to restrain himself around buffoons all day, the prospect of being able to deliver a few good whacks raised his spirits immensely. Heh! He's trying to rescue an unknown woman from her molesters—a knight on a charger with a big heart.

Faith and Davie had met one summer when she was sixteen and he was twenty. She was visiting her sister, whose husband was his sponsor. They had developed a great friendship then discussing all kinds of things and sharing many laughs together. She grew very fond of him; he fell in love with her. She returned home and married her duke during her first season. He turned his attention to politics, while the embers of his love still burned in his heart.

They have met again now, completely coincidentally, and Davie finds himself as much in love with her as before and her widowed status makes her unbearably tempting. Faith, in turn, is delighted to be meeting her childhood friend and wants desperately to have him in her life as her friend. And so they begin a tender friendship.

In the meantime, Davie has acquired some land including a well-to-do farm (that was his childhood farm) and a regular income through some well-placed sinecures. He's certainly not wealthy, but comfortable, and well able to support a wife in some style. Yet, Faith's immense wealth as a duchess stands in the way of his thinking she could become his.

Even worse is the vast social gulf between them. He's the jumped-up farmer's orphan and she is a duchess. A marriage between them would be a great mésalliance for her resulting in immediate and total social ostracization. She would move down to his level of society; he would not move up to hers. Davie drowns in this gulf and his self-esteem is at a low ebb because of this. Justiss shows very well how he grows into his own sense of self-worth over the course of the book.

One consequence of the mésalliance is very real. The trustees of her three children—in particular, the eight-year-old now Duke of Ashedon—could very well assume that she's not of sound mind to even contemplate such a relationship and remove the children from her care. Faith would not survive that and he would never put her in a position to choose between him and her children.

I enjoyed seeing how Davie and Faith wrestle with real-life problems that felt historically true to their laws, society, and culture, and work to solve them.

At one point, Davie feels so beset by thwarted love and sexual frustration, hemmed in by the laws of the land and societal norms, and pulled in every direction by Faith's needs that he becomes short with Faith, and I thought: "Bravo!" Anger is as normal a human reaction as is desire or affection, but romance novels so rarely have the courage to have their characters behave in that fashion with each other once affection and an acknowledgment of interest have been established. Davie is trying so very hard to be honorable to Faith and to himself, and it is a huge struggle for him to fight his body and his heart, but his mind rules his passions, and I found that incredibly romantic of him. On the other hand, I found Faith more in thrall to her emotions and to the power she knows she has over him. I did not think badly of Faith for behaving in that fashion; she's just being true to her character and Davie doesn't think badly of her either. However, he does remonstrate with her when it becomes unbearable for him, and Faith does feel chastised enough to want to be better about it.

An aside: I really liked that once the villain was routed, he was not resurrected to add a clichéd black moment to the story.

My one quibble with the book was the falseness of the political interest that Faith pretends to have. It feels like a plot device to throw Davie and Faith together, rather than a well-developed interest on Faith's part. I didn't mind the setup: She used to discuss politics when they first met, but had to suppress her interest, like much else, under the dominance of her husband, and now she could let that interest flower again. But Faith actually does so little to develop that interest. Here, she had the perfect opportunity in the guise of a rising MP, who's devoted to her. I would've liked to have seen her do more with this interest or to develop some other passion, other than just being concerned over her sons. I felt that this aspect of Faith could've been developed more.

But this is a minor point in an otherwise stellar novel. Have you read a Julia Justiss novel? If so, do you have recommendations for me? If you haven't read one, do start with Forbidden Nights.

Tuesday, March 21, 2017

#TBRChallenge Reading: Georgia Peaches and Other Forbidden Fruit by Jaye Robin Brown

2017 TBR Reading Challenge
Book: Georgia Peaches and Other Forbidden Fruit
Author: Jaye Robin Brown
My Categories: Lesbian YA Fiction
Wendy Crutcher's Category: Comfort Read

This review is almost a week late, and I have written it very reluctantly. I detested the book. It was the antithesis of a comfort read. Given my strong negative reaction, I have been foundering about where I should begin with the story and what I should say.

The premise of the story is very interesting. Joanna Gordon is the daughter of a radio evangelist and is a person of faith and also gay. Her father, Anthony, accepts her fully, or so she thinks, and she's encouraged to offer a series on his radio channel for other gay teens who might be interested in God. To Joanna, it is not inconceivable to think that God loves her just as she is. She does not need to dress in a particular manner or behave a certain way or give up living life on her terms to be acceptable to Him. And she wants other gay teens to feel the same acceptance.

However, the summer before her senior year, in a whirlwind marriage, Joanna's dad marries a younger woman. Elizabeth's condition of marriage is that Anthony and Joanna move from Atlanta to her small religious town in northern Georgia. After they move (not before), Anthony tells Joanna to not be so gay in this new town, to not dress Goth, and in general to not behave in a manner to rile up Elizabeth's relatives and the townspeople. And she should do this for him. In other words, this father who purportedly accepted his daughter's sexuality was uprooting her in her senior year and putting her back in the closet. In order to please her dad, she complies and pretends to be a twinset-wearing straight girl.

At school, she slowly gets in with the popular crowd, but that is how she meets the gorgeous Mary Carlson. How is she supposed to keep her eyes and her hands to herself? How her heart yearns and her body burns. So what is Joanna going to do?

Like I said, this book had promise. But unfortunately, Joanna spoiled it all. She's so self-involved and takes everything that is happening around her so personally. And she's thoughtless, rude to people around her, and generally does not hold good thoughts of most of the people in the book. In general, I found that many of the characters, other than the fabulous BTB, are selfish and mean-spirited. I can read about unlikable characters but not about mean characters. And that is all I have to say about this book. If you've read this book, please do share your thoughts.

Monday, March 13, 2017

For WA State Indie & Self-Pub Writers from @kcls Public Library

The King County Public Library system provides an excellent service to the indie and self-published writers of Washington State.

You can submit your eBook to the KCLS collection with the Library Journal's SELF-e program by sending an EPUB2, EPUB3, or PDF file via this submission form.

You book will then be included in the SELF-e and Indie Washington collections of eBooks by local authors.

BiblioBoard is the platform that you will use to check out and read eBooks available via SELF-e and Indie WA.

Your book may be reviewed by Library Journal and may be included in the national SELF-e collection, thereby, being available across all participating libraries in the U.S. and Canada.

Tuesday, March 7, 2017

My February Reading

February is my All Romance month, and with a couple of notable exceptions, I succeeded with five romances.

The DNF romance I read leads me to protest that writing a romance is not an exercise in connecting the dots unweighted by lack of research and basic writing standards. The condescension and disdain with which that book was written, while assuming that of course it'll be well-received, made me gnash my teeth while soundly DNFing it.

Devil in Spring by Lisa Kleypas
Categories: Victorian Romance
Comments: With this book, rather than the two that preceded it, I feel that Kleypas has returned to her historical roots. She's found her feet again, and her voice is assured, her comedic wit is balanced, and her characters tender and big-hearted. Despite various naysayers, I liked the heroine and how she's such a perfect foil for the glossy urbane hero with her imperfections.

"She objects not only to me, but to the institution of marriage itself. The title, the fortune, the estate, the social her, they're all detractions. Somehow I have to convince her to marry me despite those things. And I'm damned if I even know who I am outside of them."

I enjoyed seeing how Pandora struggles to assert herself and her rights as an entrepreneur in a Victorian society where a woman becomes the property of her husband after marriage and anything and everything she owns becomes his by right. I loved how Gabriel works to resolve this and workaround the day's existing laws.

One of the things that stood out for me is how much he respects her business acumen and innovation in the face of her other bumbling qualities. He wholeheartedly accepts every facet is her personality. This is a person who's allowed to be a person despite his exacting standards of himself. At the outset he saw her as a disaster and an antithesis to everything he had hoped for in a wife and future duchess. However, over time, he realizes that she is the perfect wife for him.

A Lady's Code of Misconduct by Meredith Duran
Categories: Romance, Victorian
Comments: What a great book! Duran has yet to disappoint me and this is no exception. I consider her one of the finest historical romance writers writing today. This book is a political Victorian story involving a Member of Parliament and a woman raised in a political family and a mystery they must unravel else their lives are at stake. It is also a story of trust and an amnesia trope. But with Duran, a trope's never a tired execution, but something fresh and new. That is what I really like about her writing. My review is here.

My American Duchess by Eloisa James
Categories: Regency Romance
Comments: I really enjoyed the book till the hero and heroine get married and then it went flat for me from there. But the first three-fifths were great with snappy dialogue, great characterization, and a good plot. Merry Pelford is an American heiress on the catch for a titled English gentleman. She has gained a reputation for being fickle because she has jilted two American men. So she's been brought to England, where she may have a clean slate and a wide selection to choose from. When the story begins, Merry has just been proposed to by Lord Cedric Allardyce, the twin brother of the Duke of Trent. Cedric is a virtual Pink of the Ton and very persnickety in his tastes. Merry has some idea that she's being courted for her money, but she's captivated by Cedric's good looks and fine address and believes him to be sincerely fond of her. So she accepts his proposal. However, the same night Merry has a run-in with the Duke of Trent. Neither knows the other out on the darkish terrace. And what ensues then in them revealing their true selves to each other in a refreshingly fresh, witty repartée. They find that they have instant chemistry. And so begins a triangle. My review is here.

A Lady Without a Lord by Bliss Bennet
Categories: Regency Romance
Comments: I was very much taken with Bennet's assured writing, complex and unusual characterization, and verve for storytelling, all highlights of a much more experienced author. Harriot is the steward's daughter at the Saybrook estate, but in reality, she's keeping the account books in light of her father's increasingly poor grasp of reality. She's also taken up other steward duties, such as repairing tenant roofs, supervising the sheep shearing, negotiating the vehement opposition to the annual village fête, and so on. In the meantime, Theo, Viscount Saybrook, has discovered that he's been embezzled out of 12,000 pounds. He abandons his libertine ways in London to get down to the root of the problem despite his mathematical disorder. This book is a romance, a mystery, and a coming of age story for Theo. Bennet has done a superb job of showing the progression of Alzheimer's disease and the complexities of dyscalculia disorder in an era when their causes and diagnoses were unknown. If you've never read Bennet before, I recommend you read this book. My review is here.

The Viscount's Bride by Lindsay Downs
Categories: Regency Romance
Comments: By God, this was a definite D.N.F.!!! The sheer arrogance with which the historical atrocities (i.e., factual mistakes) were made is breathtaking. He's a member of RWA. Surely, he could've attended a few of the workshops and perhaps signed up on the Beau Monde email loop to avoid some of the most egregious of mistakes. Heck, even picking up a single research book would've solved some of his basic issues. Then there's the writing. And the lack of editing. Here's the last paragraph of the book:

Kathleen, this has to have been the most interesting commission I've ever been given. I meet and marry my true love, help solve several murders, and catch the killers all the while designing pavilions for here and your parents'," Matthew declared wrapping an arm around Kathleen's waist. (punctuation his)

We Are the Change We Seek: The Speeches of Barack Obama Edited by E.J. Dionne Jr. and Joy-Ann Reid
Categories: Nonfiction
Comments: I'm loving this collection of the most prominent and noteworthy of Obama's speeches throughout his eight years in the White House. This is an ongoing reading project, so it'll show up on these monthly reading round-ups for a while.

Becoming the Parent You Want To Be by Laura Davis & Janis Keyser
Categories: Nonfiction
Comments: As with most parenting advice, this book's contents are not rocket science, nor are they at the epiphany level. But many times, things that you've read in the past and not connected with suddenly resonate with you when explained differently. Such is the case of this book. And while it claims to be only for small children, I think the book applies equally to older children.