Saturday, October 3, 2020


My September Reading


After the personal tumult of August, September was relatively quieter. I cautiously breathed deeper each day with gratitude in my heart each night. With a wee bit more time on hand, I attended a few events happening in my city and one in DC. Two of the most memorable ones were the Pongo Poetry Project's celebration with keynote by the sublime Naomi Shihab Nye and the National Book Festival organized by the Library of Congress.

Naomi Shihab Nye was my new discovery in August, and since then, I have picked up a few of her poems here and there, hoping to pick up one of her many collections. Pongo's mission is to take poetry into spaces for troubled youth: detention centers, transition houses, etc. in the hope that poetry will allow them self-expression to help them process their pain and their situation. I was delighted to find that I knew two of the speakers: one was my oldest's middle school English teacher and the other I know from a writing class we took two decades ago. Nye, the Young People's Poet Laureate, is well-known for working with troubled youth so her talk about her work and her poetry was especially meaningful to me.

The best events at the book festival were the interview of children's book author Mo Willems by the Librarian of Congress, Dr. Carla Hayden and the talk by YA author Jason Reynolds. I read Stamped: Racism, Antiracism, and You by Reynolds, adapted from Stamped from the Beginning by Dr. Ibram X. Kendi, this July and was blown away by the stories and the prose. So it was exciting to listen to Reynolds, the National Ambassador of Young People’s Literature, talk at the festival. He is an even better orator than writer and that is saying something. I transcribed his talk in full and was fascinated by his facility with language and thought to create images in your mind. He's a persuasive storyteller, and it showed.

Girl Gone Viral by Alisha Rai
Category: Contemporary Romance
Comments: [CW: Past abuse, assault, body image, kidnapping, nightmares, panic attacks, war PTSD]

Katrina King-Arora, a Thai American former model, is now an angel investor and a recluse. She had escaped her abusive father, who used to also be her manager, by marrying an older, kindly man who has now left her widowed. She has always struggled with anxiety her whole life due to her father, but her mental health struggles became more intense after being kidnapped a few years ago. As a result, she considers herself lucky to have a coterie of female friends, her “found” family, who get her and support her.

Katrina is highly circumspect about her privacy, but one day, she drops her guard at a crowded café and allows a stranger to share her table but repeatedly refuses to go on a date with him. Unbeknownst to her, someone falsely livetweets her interactions as a budding romance under the hashtag #cafebae, which quickly catches the attention of the denizens of Twitter. This lands her in physical danger, and her latent panic disorder rears its ugly head.

Jasvinder “Jas” Singh, with a mixed Punjabi Indian and Mexican ancestry, is a former soldier who now uses his considerable skills in his work as a bodyguard. Behind the scenes of his new job, he struggles to overcome the PTSD he suffers from his time in the military. Currently, he is Katrina’s bodyguard. To escape the fallout from the twitterstorm, Jas suggests that he and Katrina retreat to his family’s remote farm in Northern California to lie low for a while and hope people’s short-term memories will allow the stay to be short as well. Katrina seizes on this chance to escape the limelight.

Rai has done an excellent job of portraying how these two people suffering from severe mental health issues work through them and learn to manage them even as they lead fulfilling lives. Rai’s characters’ positivity towards their illnesses and normalization of therapy in their everyday lives allows readers dealing with these issues to feel “seen,” while offering hope for a better future for themselves. To me, the sensitivity and delicacy of Rai’s portrayal of these aspects of her protagonists’ lives is the heart of the story. My review is here.

Ties that Tether by Jane Igharo
Category: Contemporary Romance
Comments: "He’s my everything. He’s my lifeline," the heroine says to the hero. "You’re the light of my world," the hero says to the heroine. What can be more heartfelt declarations of love than these?

Nigerian-Canadian Azere Izoduwa works at Xander in Toronto, North America’s top advertising agency. She was born in a Nigerian village and immigrated to Canada with her mother and sister at the age of twelve. Spanish Canadian Rafael Castellano is in the process of moving back to Toronto from NYC where he spent a few years. His time in NYC is something that he adamantly refuses to speak about with anyone, even his close family. Azere and Rafael meet when Azere escapes another date setup by her mother and ends up in the hotel bar feeling out of sorts and a bit reckless. Some conversation and a hot kiss later, their instant connection translates into a one night stand. Only...Azere ends up pregnant. And Rafael ends up working for Xander.

The best part of this book for me was Azere and her mother’s relationship. It is so fraught with the immigration experience. Her mother wants to hold on to what she knows, the memories and experiences with which she came to Canada and which she is so afraid her daughter will forget. And in forgetting the culture, she will forget her father and lose all that made Azere Izoduwa an Edo Nigerian. But her mother has never understood how difficult the first few days and weeks and months were for Azere when she first immigrated to Canada. At that age, acceptance of her peers meant having to conform to the cultural norms. She had to adopt new customs, behave in new ways, and think of herself differently, all of which were threatening to her mother. My review is here.

Get a Life, Chloe Brown by Talia Hibbert
Category: Contemporary Romance
Comments: [CW: former abusive relationship, abandonment by people, chronic illness not taken seriously, racism.]

Jamaican-British Chloe Brown comes from money but has left that world behind. She is now a freelance web designer and loves her job. But her job is made difficult by her fibromyalgia — her life changed significantly when her symptoms began in her 20s and doctors and friends dismissed her illness. She suffers tremendous pain, fatigue and insomnia with their attendant mood issues, and so despite having the support of a loving and close family, she feels that her life has been severely limited and she is stagnating.

I really liked how Chloe Brown takes a near-miss car accident as a wake-up call to really live life. She doesn’t wallow in her fear, but instead decides to jumpstart her life into something that she really wants to look back upon and say, yep, she really achieved what she set out to do. So how do you achieve things? Make a list! List-making is a profoundly philosophical activity. Ask Plato.

Redford “Red” Morgan used to be a talented painter, but he abruptly left the London art world and now spends his days as a superintendent of a building. He suffers from PTSD after suffering emotional abuse and domestic violence in his previous relationship.

Chloe and Red meet when he is ready to rejoin the art world and needs a website that Chloe is willing to code up for him. My review is here.

The Rakess by Scarlet Peckham
Category: Historical Romance
Comments: [CW: death, alcoholism, addiction, stillbirth, abuse, wrongful imprisonment, loss of innocence]

Inspired by Mary Wollstonecraft, Seraphina “Sera” Arden is a passionate liberalist and feminist whose core values are helping other women, who’ve run afoul men and have their lives ruined, and championing rights for women. Despite her beliefs coming under fire from all directions, she stands steadfast by them. Privately, she lives a hedonistic life of drinking and casual sex. She is answerable to no one and responsible to no one. She is a rakess in the true sense of how historical romances view rakes.

Adam Anderson, on the other hand, is abstemious and fastidious. He has a large capacity for empathy, thoughtfulness and caring and generously shares of himself with others. He is a widower whose wife died in childbirth, and he is raising their children on his own. He is an architect who sees politics in his future. Thus, if he were to marry again, he needs someone of exemplary character. Sera and Adam meet on a Cornish cliffside where he is engaged in assessing the architecture of a structure and she mistakes him for her erstwhile lover.

Many romance novels have damaged heroes who are healed by heroines. It is a rare novel that features a truly flawed heroine who has agency to heal herself and is helped along the healing process by the hero. Peckham unflinchingly allows Seraphina to be deeply flawed and still deserving of love and capable of loving. This book is a triumph of the human spirit and draws a bold line under “there is someone special for everyone.” My review is here.

Weekend Fling with the Surgeon by Janice Lynn
Category: This was my first medical category romance, and I liked it. Pediatric cardiologist Dr. McKenzie Wilkes has been dumped one too many times and is heartbroken. Adding salt to the wound, she was supposed to show up to her glamorous cousin's wedding with a fiancé in tow. To save face, she starts searching for escorts. She is caught at it by none other than pediatric cardiothoracic surgeon Dr. Ryder Andrews, who cannot stand the sight of her (or so she believes). To her horror, her mouth asks him if he would be her pretend boyfriend. To her further horror, he says, yes. And so, they're off to Nashville for a weekend of wedding shenanigans.

It's a tender romance with instant attraction but a slow build to the relationship. I enjoyed it. I also liked Ryder and McKenzie's back stories, especially, why Ryder decided to become a heart doctor. I will admit, I had hoped for more medical situations and terminology. We are told about what amazing doctors they are but I would've liked to have been shown more about it. The amount of medical stuff may be toeing the sub-genre line—I don't know that since I am new to the sub-genre—but, personally, medical matters fascinate me, so I had hoped for more. Oeverall, good first medical. I have a second for an official review later this year.

American Love Story by Adrianna Herrera
Category: Contemporary Romance
Comments: This is the third book in Herrera's Dreamers series. I really liked her first book—it was on my Best Books list last year—so I was looking forward to this one, but this was less successful. It has many of the hallmarks of Herrera's books: found family, characters interested in social justice, and some politics.

Haitian-American Patrice is first generation immigrant and an economics professor who joins Cornell's faculty. He is aware that part of his reason for accepting this post is that his summertime hookup, assistant district attorney, Easton, also lives in Ithaca. Easton is interested in picking up where they left off, but Patrice shuts him down initially. How can his research and activism in systemic racism and racial justice be compatible with dating a Caucasian prosecutor. "I have literally spent the last ten years of my life studying and writing about how the system that Easton works every day to uphold is weaponized to keep people like me in chains. How do I reconcile that?"

So while they're dancing around their relationship even as they keep meeting up at friends' houses, when Patrice tells Easton that he’s having trouble finding a permanent place to live, Easton offers him an apartment in the building he owns. So far so good. Herrera has sketched out very interesting characters, and the story is off to a great start. What unfortunately sank the story was the navel gazing and back-n-forth "I want him / I want him not" both characters indulge in over and over again. Some of it is a given in romance as in real life, but this is a large part of the book, which made it tough to read because you want the characters to move on and grow and mature. While the other stakes in the story are really high—immigration, racial profiling, and police harassment—the romance is not as well developed as I usually expect of Herrera.

Governess Gone Rogue by Laura Lee Guhrke
Category: Historical Romance
Comments: This book is the third book in Guhrke's Dear Lady Truelove series. I haven't read a Guhrke in a long time, and what I had read in the past I had liked, so I picked this one up. It is uneven and makes certain jumps and leaps that made is less successful for me.

Amanda's father wanted a boy and reared her as such by giving her a fine education and sending her to Oxford. Teaching is her love and joy in life—living by her brain is what she wants to do. So she'd been happy teaching at a respectable girl's school until she innocently fell for a bounder, lost her reputation and lost her job. Now she's on the edge of destitution, when she sees an advert for a male tutor. Naturally, she cuts her hair, binds her breasts, and off she goes to tutor twin hellions. Her disguise is 100 percent successful: her employer, his sons, and his servants are all fooled. The boys, who had previously routed all nannies and tutors, start minding her. All of this is fun and pure Guhrke.

Then one day, she's asked to valet his lordship, and when her hand grazes his chin, he feels instant lust and then after staring at her realizes she's a woman. He instantly fires her, because, by God, a tutor, no matter how good, cannot be a woman, and She.Lied.To.Him., so he cannot trust her. But everyone pleads her case, and he hires her back.

By 50% of the book, he still thought of her as a man. By 67%, he is lusting after her and they are calling each other by their first names. And the remainder of the book then follows along a tried and true governess-nobleman path with increasing lust leading to feelings. Ho hum! Not Guhrke's best. If you wish to try out Guhrke's work, read her older books.

A Rogue of One's Own by Evie Dunmore
Category: Historical Romance
Comments: I'm going to talk at a high level about this book. I loved Dunmore's first book; it was on my Best Books list last year, so I was eagerly looking forward to this book. The characterization is very good, and exactly what I expected of Dunmore. The chemistry between the protagonists is well done. The heroine is very interesting and her story is about suffrage, women rights, feminism, class differences, and equality. Now if the book was purely about the heroine, I'd say this is good book.

However, the biggest problem with this book is its colonialism and "exotic" fetshization. The hero, a white viscount, has a tattoo of a four-armed, blue-skinned, and naked South Asian dancer on his chest done by a white man.

In Hello, Stranger, Lisa Kleypas had a couple of paragraphs of the Kama Sutra "exotic" stuff. SBTB ran a scathing review that led Kleypas to apologize and to change the content in her subsequent editions. I know this because I helped her and her editor work on this. However, in Dunmore's book the offensive portion is extensive and a major plot point. There is no way to "fix" this book. While Dunmore has done research on Hindu mythology and Indian history, she shows a lack of basic understanding of the impact of colonialism on the Indian psyche and what appropriation of a Hindu god means to Hindus. I wish this othering trope of "Indian culture is erotic and exotic" would go away.

Tempestuous April by Betty Neels
Category: Vintage Contemporary Romance
Comments: I was looking for a low-conflict easy book, and this hit all the right buttons...except, well, except, there wasn't much story. She's British and a nurse in a London hospital. She goes on a holiday to The Netherlands at a friend's house and meets a rich doctor. From the first glance, they both realize that the other is The One, but they don't get enough screentime. Despite it, they fall for each other. In so many ways, he tells her he loves her. I really liked how creatively tender he is. Unfortunately, despite being a nurse, she is immature and that does not improve. The hero takes her as is.

It's been a while since I read a Neels book, and I had forgotten how much telling there is with very little showing. I do realize that Neels' stories have the same in broad strokes, but it is in the minutiae that they're different, and that is where the story is. A couple of Neels' stories have worked well for me, but this one didn't. The romance felt cursory, like the author's heart wasn't into it. However, don't take my word for it—it is well-received on Amazon.

Act Like It by Lucy Parker
Category: Contemporary Romance
Comments: This is the third book of our Sunday Twitter Book Club with Mary Lynne (@emmelnie), Kay (@miss_batesreads), and Ros (@ros_clarke). This month we read the first four chapters. I know the deal is that you're supposed to read only the chapters you are disucssing, but I find this book addictive, and once I start reading it, I cannot stop. I read it through and laughed myself silly through it all. I adore Parker's sense of humor and the witty one-liners that her protagonists crack, especially the heroine. Snark is extremely tricky to carry off—in many contemporaries, it verges on the mean from the heroine to the hapless hero, while he is a cinnamon roll. In this book, both protagonists are on par, and he takes what she dishes out on the chin, and she never hits below the belt. Unlike the Grant book below, the power is balanced between them from the beginning to the end, even though he does a lot more work than she in the story. He has problems, but he isn't a problem.

A Lady Awakened by Cecilia Grant
Category: Historical Romance
Comments: I commented in last month's post about this book, the second of our book club reads. I just could not get behind this heroine, despite her having done a tremendous amount of work. I greatly admired Grant's ability to present such a tough protagonist to the reader and then allow the reader to watch her struggle to overcome her worst impulses and qualities to become a person worthy of her own approval and that of someone who starts becoming important to her. I felt sorry for the hero from the begining to the end, but also realized that he is more because she is she. She believes in him, and he grows into his own because of her belief in him. They complement each other, though I would've wanted an easier heroine for him. The power between them will always be imbalanced in her favor, though not as severely imbalanced as in the beginning.

2 comments:

Unknown said...

I think I’m the only person who disliked Act Like It. She got the theater so, so wrong. Must not have done even rudimentary research. There are at least a couple of other books in this post that didn’t do much for me but one is the only one I found infuriating.

Keira Soleore said...

Thank you for commenting. Sorry to read that you disliked "Act Like It." You seem to have some experience with London theater.