Sunday, January 1, 2023

Happy New Year 2023

Wishing everyone a joyous, peaceful, and healthy new year. May it bring you what you most wish for and may you be happy through it all.

Sunday, October 9, 2022

Review: In the Shadow of a Queen by Heather B. Moore

Moore truly knows how to set the stage on which her tale of historical fiction, based on true people and events, unfolds. Her deep research and skillful storytelling immerse you into the Victorian era and life in Queen Victoria's household.

The story is about Princess Louise, the sixth of Victoria's nine children. The story starts out when she is a shy twelve-year-old understood only by her eldest brother, Bertie, the Prince of Wales. She is the typical middle child, oft forgotten and expected to be uncomplainingly dutiful. She is a creative who enjoys sketching and painting, but her true passion is sculpture. She longs to express herself in art and in politics, but she is perpetually cowed by her domineering, strong-willed mother.

This story is as much about Louise as it is about Victoria and their private family life before and especially in the aftermath of Victoria’s beloved husband, Prince Albert's untimely death. Recounted in a sequential fashion from when Louise was twelve to twenty-three, much of the story involves the severe restrictions placed on her and her siblings' lives by Victoria’s overwhelmingly exacting mourning. She is such a feared tyrant that marriage is the only way for her daughters to escape her oppressive presence.

When she marries, Louise is very lucky to have a loving husband who gives her all the freedom to be who she wants to be. Her flourishing in her marriage after all the repressions of her austere childhood is superbly shown by Moore.

Through the story and the extensive front and back matter of a family tree, detailed chapter notes, foreword and afterword, and so on, you truly get an in-depth look at Victoria and Louise's personalities, court life, British and European politics, and how the Victorian society was crafted.

[Note: Louise's art is on display in the UK even now and her notable contributions to society are a matter of public record.]

[Also Note: I received a print ARC from the publisher.]

Wednesday, September 14, 2022

Summer Reading Notes

I have sorely neglected this blog, so instead of getting a post every two months, you're getting a giant four-month one. Lots of romance. Lots. As many of you know, I suffer from chronic pain, and the pain is getting worse. So lots of romance reading in an effort to soothe and sweep me away.

Bloomsbury Girls by Natalie Jenner
Category: Historical Fiction
Comments: Jenner follows upon the success of her hugely popular Jane Austen Society with the 1950s London-based story, Bloomsbury Girls, about three shopgirls, a century-old bookshop, and much feuding between the male staff and the female staff to take ownership of the shop. The servant girl, Evie Stone, from Jane Austen Society is now all grown up with a degree from Cambridge and a fondness for giving visibility to forgotten women writers. She has found her home among the rare books of Bloomsbury Books & Maps. The story is about the lives of the three shop girls and the men they love. Jenner is a superb writer—keenly observant and alive to emotional nuance. [My Review]

News To Me: Adventures of an Accidental Journalist by Laurie Hertzel
Category: Nonfiction Memoir
Comments: This was my second read of this book, and it was just as fascinating as the first time around. Hertzel writes with an earnestness and deprecation, which makes her spare prose and great sense of storytelling so compelling to read. It is the story of her first job, which was at the main newspaper in Duluth, MN. I was fascinated by all the details of the goings-on in a big, busy newsroom. I enjoy memoirs where people talk in detail about their jobs. This book is a treasure.

Ewaso Village: Poems and Stories from Laikipia County, Kenya by Chip Duncan
Category: Nonfiction, Fiction, Poetry
Comments: One of the best books of the summer for me. Something very different from what I usually review. Photojournalist and documentary filmmaker Chip Duncan’s sensitive book focuses on the Kenyan Maasai community of Ewaso village, capturing them through photographs, history, stories, and poems. Duncan first visited Ewaso village in 2012 and was welcomed into its society. Since then, he has returned annually, drawn by the community’s kindness, generosity of spirit, and easy acceptance of him. This book conveys his deep care and respect for the community and their culture. Recording both events and conversations, the book captures moments in the lives, families, traditions, and rituals of the Maasai people. [My Review]

Every Leaf a Hallelujah by Ben Okri, illustrated by Diana Ejaita
Category: Children's Fiction
Comments: This is a fantastic book by Booker Prize-winning and hugely influential Nigerian-British author, Ben Okri. This is his first book for children, and the talented artist's illustrations greatly enhance the reading experience. This book is meant for children who will inherit the climate crisis and for those of us who care about the environment. If you are a tree hugger, this book is for you. The story features an array of extraordinary Nigerian trees, each with its own personality and voice. The great baobab is the chief tree, and he takes us on a journey around the world to see what happens when we don't listen to nature. Forests are vanishing, climate is changing, and yet, no one is listening. Gorgeous book.

I Am Able to Shine by Korey Watari, illustrated by Mike Wu
Category: Children's Picture Book
Comments: Inspired by her experience growing up Japanese American, debut picture book author Korey Watari has teamed up with her husband, Pixar artist and creator of the Ellie series, Mike Wu, to create I Am Able to Shine, the joyful story of Keiko, a young Japanese American girl with a big heart and big dreams. Every night, young Keiko wishes to her paper crane, “I wish to change the world and shine.” And yet, everywhere she goes she feels invisible. The book is about how Keiko overcomes adversity to seize the future she wants. She does this by being true to herself and in so doing achieves her dreams. [My Review]

Goodnight Ganesha by Nadia Salomon, illustrated by Poonam Mistry
Category: Children's Picture Book
Comments: With rhymes patterned on Margaret Wise Brown’s Goodnight Moon, this is a picture book that celebrates the beloved nightly rituals of two children visiting their grandparents’ home in India. The artwork in this book is outstanding. Delicate filigree work reminiscent of the art and architecture of ancient India fills every page with color. Despite the pieces being predominantly hand-drawn, you would need to take a magnifying glass to see all the minute details. A book worth savoring. [My Review]

Revenge: Meghan, Harry, and the War Between the Windsors by Tom Bower
Category: Nonfiction
Comments: Gossipy book. I was so curious what it was all about and why it made such a huge splash in the UK. And I don't know what to believe anymore. It is very detailed, and he has clearly done a ton of research and talked to a ton of people. But it is also very biased and one-sided.

Honey & Spice by Bolu Babalola
Category: Contemporary Romance
Comments: This is one of my best romances of the year. A brilliant and wildly creative young woman with sharp corners and sharper tongue discovers the softer side of life through the love of a kind young man in this dazzling debut romance. It is set at a small university in England and features two Nigerian-British protagonists. On the surface, it is a typical enemies-to-lovers college romance, but it is Babalola's distincctive voice and writing style that elevates it to memorable. [My Review]

Thank You For Listening by Julia Whelan
Category: Contemporary Romance
Comments: The author draws on her experience narrating audiobooks in this poignant and charming novel about two famous audiobook performers who fall in love during their dual narration of a romance novel. Much of the novel is epistolary, through anonymous emails and text messages. I love such books where protagonists fall in love with each other's personality even before they set eyes on each other. [My Review]

To Catch a Raven by Beverly Jenkins
Category: Historical Romance
Comments: In the last book of her highly popular Women Who Dare series, Jenkins tells a complex, nuanced story of a courageous, enterprising woman from New Orleans who lives by her wits and a wealthy, philanthropic tailor from Boston. I have really liked all the books in this series. [My Review]

Wedding Bells at Villa Limoncello by Daisy James
Category: Contemporary Romance
Comments: This is a warmhearted, small-town, slow burn story, which is a love letter to Italy that starts off the U.S. debut of Daisy James’ Tuscan Dreams series. This is a continuity series, where the protagnoists' happy-for-now story continues in the next two books. They meet when he runs her Vespa off the road with his Spider.

Rules of Engagement by Stacey Abrams writing as Selena Montgomery
Category: Contemporary Romantic Suspense
Comments: This is a reissue of the second-chance romantic suspense novel about two brilliant minds recruited from graduate school by a shadowy extragovernmental intelligence agency to lead a peripatetic lifestyle around the globe. It is a tightly-paced thriller with a tender romance set in the fictitious Mediterranean island of Jafir, whose culture is the confluence of the Middle East and Africa. Abrams a fabulous writer and really knows how to write romantic suspense. Definitely worth a look.

Drunk on Love by Jasmine Guillory
Category: Contemporary Romance
Comments: This is Guillory's best book so far. The story is set among the verdant vineyards of Napa Valley, where she immerses you in the nitty-gritty of the wine business. The heroine is the rare black co-owner of a vineyard, and the hero is a tech whiz whose burned out on the intense pressure and racism of Silicon Valley. They meet over a one-night-stand, and lo and behold, the next day, he walks in as her new employee. Eek! [My Review]

On Rotation by Shirlene Obuobi
Category: Contemporary Romance
Comments: I totally geeked out over all the medical school details in this story by a Ghanaian-American cardiologist. The heroine is Ghanaian-American and the hero is Caucasian. In addition, he is not a lawyer, doctor, or engineer, but gasp! an artist. He’s also got “wasteman” practically tattooed across his forehead. A no-no to the heroine's family. But in reality, he is really a sweetheart. Excellent characterization of two dissimilar people who grow and learn to appreciate how the other one clicks. Obuobi is a writer to watch. This was her debut book.

In a New York Minute by Kate Spencer
Category: Contemporary Romance
Comments: What a fun paean to New York City! Spencer loves the city, and it shows. The story opens with the heroine getting fired from her interior design startup and worried about how she was now going to subsist in the hideously expensive city. The hero is this uptight wealthy heir to a business with his bespoke suits. The hero is kind and wonderful. She is sassy and artsy. Chalk and cheese. They meet on the subway, when the back of her dress gets caught in the doors and rips straight down her back. He jumps in to the rescue with his suit jacket. Their whole interaction is caught on a stealth video that becomes a hashtag viral sensation. Someone finds their identity, and they are thrown together again and again. A quick, light read.

The Lost Letter by Mimi Matthews
Category: Historical Romance
Comments: Having greatly enjoyed Matthews' recent books, I decided to check out her earliest romance, and it is a delightful Victorian in the traditional style. It's a second-chance, Beauty & the Beast, governess & peer of the realm romance elevated by Matthews wonderful prose, superb research, and immersive period feel. In their youth, they met in London's ballrooms, he, an officer in the army and she, a young miss. They were in love but hadn't quite acknowledged it to the other. Suddenly, he is called away to India. While they both write to each other, neither gets the other's letters, and they feel that they have been betrayed and abandoned by the other. In the meantime, her worthless gamester father dies, leaving her in penury, so she has to make a living as a governess in a merchant's home in London's insalubrious environs. He returns badly injured and is hiberating on his estate, when his desperate sister finds her and blackmails and cajoles her into paying a visit. Like I said, not an unusual story, but Matthews really knows how to map the emotional terrain of her characters. Definitely worth a read.

Field Rules by Carla Luna
Category: Contemporary Romance
Comments: I totally took a chance on this author, never having read her or heard about her and despite seeing the low ratings on her other three books. But she's an archeologist and this story is set on a dig in Cyprus, so I thought at least there would be much geekery to be had. And it sure does. I thoroughly enjoyed the story and the characters. It deserves a much higher rating than only 20 five stars on AMZ. She's an archelogy PhD student who buries her head in academia after one disastrous dig in her undergrad with her fellow student, who was her lover and whom she promptly ghosts. However, now at this stage in her academic career, she needs to earn some street creds, so she decides to take a chance on a dig, only to discover that her ex is the expert on the dig. He abandoned grad school and became a "shovel bum," someone who lives a roving life traveling from dig to dig bringing in his field experience in exchange for money. Great backstory for him and great characterization for him. She needed a little bit more. Good overall story.

Her Fake Date Until Midnight by Eve Pendle
Category: Contemporary Romance
Comments: [I received an eARC from the author.] I have read and enjoyed a couple of Pendle's historical romances, so took a chance on this contemporary, and it was lots of fun. She has an entertaining British contemporary voice. He is a citified billionaire. She's a small town, almost broke veteranian working in her ex's father's clinic. Her ex is getting married, and her boss wants her to go. How can she without a plus one? The hero is a harried workaholic billionaire who has been charged by his sister to take a mental health break by rusticating at a manor house in the country. Lo and behold, a pregnant dog ends up unconscious on his doorstep, and he has no clue what to do. First things first, he takes the dog to the local vet, and asks (demands) that she take charge of the dog. They make a trade: he attends the wedding as her plus one and she will help him find the owner. Many hijinks ensue. Pendle keeps a light hand on the emotions and a tight rein on the plot, allowing the characters to shine without getting bogged down by over-the-top emotional excess that plague many billionaire romances. Definitely an author to check out.

Once Upon a Bride by Jenny Holiday
Category: Contemporary Romance Novella
Comments: Having enjoyed other of Holidays books, I chose this one. But it was less successful than some others of this type: he's the successful, wealthy, repressed, man of the world; she's the down-on-her-luck, creative, free spirit. Beneath that stern exterior, he's a sweetheart. Beneath her bubbly exterior, she is hiding childhood emotional scars. He is her employer because he hired her to do the interior decoration at his firm. They do everything but avoid any intimacy till the very hour the job is done. Holiday has a light, banter-filled hand, but somehow, neither the characterization nor the plot really take off. It is a competent story from a good writer, but that's it.

Below Zero by Ali Hazelwood
Category: Contemporary Romance Novella
Comments: My first Ali Hazelwood story, and I totally get why her debut book Love Hypothesis has 4.6 stars from 45k+ readers on Amazon. She is a superb writer and tells an entertaining, fast-paced story of nerdy NASA engineers and scientists geeking out over code and Mars rovers and engaging in great derring-do in the brutal wilds of Svalbard, Norway. The heroine is prickly and thinks very poorly of herself. She believes men are only interested in hookups with her and would be turned off if they got to know her. He thinks she is fabulous and falls in love with her at their first meeting. He is a total cinnamon roll, kind and sweet and earnest. I loved all the tech in the book—you get the feeling that Hazelwood has really researched it all in great, authentic detail. And who does not have stars (ha!) in their eyes over NASA?

Love on the Brain by Ali Hazelwood
Category: Contemporary Romance
Comments: Another story set in the rarefied atmosphere of NIH and NASA. I totally geeked out about all the details of a neuroengineering research project that adds performance enhancement technology through neurostimulation to astronauts’ helmets. Light espionage, some derring-do, and an unexpected villain are just some of the delights. [My Review]

The Love Hypothesis by Ali Hazelwood
Category: Contemporary Romance
Comments: Hazelwood's books are about people in STEM, academia, and research, which I absolutely love, and she has the chops to pull it off. In addition to romance, she is the writer of peer-reviewed articles about brain science. Pulling off a strong power imbalance relationship between her protagonists as a debut book takes courage, and Hazelwood has it in spades. The heroine is a graduate student in the same department as the hero who is a professor. He is not her advisor nor is he on her PhD thesis committee, but it is still a power imbalance situation. With clever and yet seamless plot and character maneuvering, Hazelwood employs a cracking pace, witty banter, and fully accessible complex people to make it easy for the reader to take the leap and believe that this is a healthy, solid relationship. Highly recommended.

Under One Roof by Ali Hazelwood
Category: Contemporary Romance Novella
Comments: When I first read the premise, I rolled my eyes. Such a trite contemporary romance plot, but I decided to give it a try, because it's a Hazelwood. And I'm glad I did. This is a tender STEMinist novella. They've both been left a house in DC by someone they both love: her mentor and his aunt. But she didn't warn them about it beforehand. So now they are yoked together and are as different as can be in temperament and job. She's an environmental engineer at the EPA and he is a big oil lawyer. And...boy, do the sparks fly. Lovely character work as before, and despite it having to move along quickly since it is a novella, the relationship story does not feel shortchanged.

Stuck with You by Ali Hazelwood
Category: Contemporary Romance Novella
Comments: This is the weakest of all of Hazelwood's books. Because I read them all in one go, I started noticing author "tells," and how this story rehashes much of the characterization of her other books even down to how the hero and heroine look and behave and speak. If you space her books out, one a year, you may very likely not notice this. Which is to say that in a year or two, I'll be drawn to her new book once again.

The Make-Up Test by Jenny L. Howe
Category: Contemporary Romance Novella
Comments: Competence porn is real! Both the characters are great students, and the academic discussion scenes are wonderful. The hero and heroine meet at Brown, where she's a sophomore and he's a senior. The fat rep for her is superb as is the characterization of the hero who is far from the romance novel hero norm. What Howe brings to the table is that the only thing that matters is that they each find the other very attractive. They spend a good few months together, but then he betrays her and dumps her. Surpise, surpise! When she lands in graduate school, guess who is also a first year in the same department and vying to be the advisee of the same famed professor? He ruined her life in undergrad; is he now going to do the same to her grad school and future academic aspirations? Good examination of the people they were in undergrad versus the people they have grown up to be now. Good growth opportunity for both people, which is what I look for, but as is more and more en vogue in contemporary roms these days, the hero has more work to do.

Before I Do by Sophie Cousens
Category: Contemporary Romance Novella
Comments: This book is quite unusual in that every chapter is in a different time, before and after, the main event, which is the disastrous wedding of the hero and the heroine. I loved the way Cousens executes this multi-timeline approach. The story is mainly from the heroine's POV and is set in England. She is someone who flitted about different majors (courses) at university and finally dropped out. She does odd jobs here and there to scrape together a living. While she feels stuck several years behind her friends who have steady jobs, house mortgages, marriages, etc.—;i.e., the usual trappings of life of people in their twenties and thirties—;she is not very motivated to try to change her life. She is suffering from trauma and that leads her to live a risky, careless life. The hero is sweet, kind, responsible, loving, and upstanding. Just the best, and he loves her unconditionally. I did not like the heroine's attitude to life and how she simply takes from everyone around her, including her fiancé. He does all the work, and yet he is shown to be grateful to her just for her presence in his life. The author tries to give the heroine a character update towards the end of the book, but it was too little, too late for me.

The One That Got Away by Zee Monodee
Category: Contemporary Romance
Comments: This was a DNF, which was a huge pity. It's by Love Africa Press, and I try to read their books as and when I can. I was so excited by the premise: A second-chance multicultural romance set in Mauritius and based on Mauritius cultural and societal norms. It started out very promising but quickly went awry because of the poor writing. While it is in dual POVs, the heroine's is primary, and I found her very inconsistent. The author tells us over and over again how talented she is and what an important job she has, but instead of a successful, mature woman in her thirties, we get a thirty-plus-going-on-twenty with all the immature reactions and actions inherent therein. I persisted for a while because I still retained hopes of the story coming together after a rough start, but had to eventually nope out.

The Decoy Girlfriend by Lillie Vale
Category: Contemporary Romance Novella
Comments: This was a DNF as well. I had heard the buzz about Vale's first book, so I was eager to try this one out, and it was disappointing in multiple ways. The author wanted to write in first person present, but you have to construct the story differently as opposed to writing it in first person past. Vale couldn't pull it off, so there were constant tense changes, which got tiresome. The heroine is very shallow and gives very little as opposed to all that everyone around her, especially the hero, gives her. The hero is a true cinnamon roll, despite being extremely hot and a famous actor. Her only claim to fame is a bestseller she wrote in her late teens. She is not making any progress with her second book and is unemployed because, well, she is writing (or at least pretending to be), but everyone around her is bending over backwards to pretend that she is a "real wrier." There is plenty of preaching from her to the hero of how a writer thinks, all of which makes him admire her. The premise is that she is the doppelgänger of a famous Hollywood golden girl, and she gets lots of perks, including free jewelry, from pretending to be her...till she gets caught. Then her doppelgänger has her really pretend to be her, which involves being closely involved with her showmance boyfriend, who doesn't feel a thing for the star but falls instantly in lust and love with our writer.

[Some of these books are eARCs from NetGalley and the others are either borrowed from the public library or I've bought them.]

Monday, June 27, 2022

Review: Bloomsbury Girls by Natalie Jenner

Jenner follows upon the success of her hugely popular Jane Austen Society (2020) with the 1950s London-based story, Bloomsbury Girls, about three shopgirls, a century-old bookshop, and much feuding between the male staff and the female staff to take ownership of the shop.

The servant girl, Evie Stone, from Jane Austen Society is now all grown up with a degree from Cambridge and has found her home among the rare books of Bloomsbury Books & Maps. Jenner says that Evie Stone is the only character inspired by real life: her own mother, who had to leave school at age fourteen, and her own daughter, who does eighteenth-century research for a university professor and his team.

Illustrious women of the publishing world, such as Daphne Du Maurier, Ellen Doubleday, George Orwell’s widow Sonia Blair, Peggy Guggenheim, and others make cameo appearances at the bookshop and at literary salons around London, setting the stage on which the three female employees, Grace Perkins, Vivien Lowry, and Evie Stone, build their dreams and careers.

Vivien Lowry is vivacious, self-confident, and very much single. She still mourns the loss of her aristocratic fiancé who was killed in action during World War II. She is reluctantly in charge of the cash register though her goal is to be Head of Fiction and replace some of the stuffy male-only titles with books by women. She is in a love-hate relationship with Alec McDonough, the current Head of Fiction.

Grace Perkins has worked at the shop the longest. She prefers keeping her head down at her bookkeeping and secretarial job in the backrooms of the shop. Her two sons are her joy. But her marriage is suffocating under her husband’s increasingly worsening mental health. Grace is always dutiful, but there are times when she wishes she could run away. Her only respite is Lord Baskin, the aristocratic owner of the shop who spends time with her and makes her laugh.

Evelyn “Evie” Stone is the shop’s newest and youngest employee who was hired based on her being in the first class of female students from Cambridge who were permitted to earn a degree. In her naïveté, Evie was denied an academic position in favor of her less accomplished male rival. She is determined to make a success of her secret project in London, which is to print notable works by women writers that have been lost to obscurity. The shop’s shy scientist in charge of the Science and Naturalism Department, Ashwin “Ash” Ramaswamy, opens her shy, innocent eyes to Indian culture and British racism. And to attraction.

As we saw in Jane Austen Society, and especially heightened in Bloomsbury Girls, Jenner skillfully imbues her characters with so much personality, you cannot help getting enmeshed in their vivid lives unfolding on the page. In both books, Jenner explores friendships and a coming together for a common cause; in other words, a life of meaning and purpose. Women in postwar London were not allowed to exhibit ambition and a career-focus, but that is exactly what the women in the story pursue. Stealth and much derring-do in the sale of a precious forgotten three-volume manuscript add color and drama to the narrative.

Bloomsbury Girls solidly situates Jenner as a writer of unforgettable and delightful historical fiction. If you are enamored with books and bookshops, then Jenner, who was an independent bookstore owner in Oakville, Ontario, is the perfect person to introduce Bloomsbury Books & Maps to you.

[Please note: The unabridged audiobook has been narrated by the esteemed British actress Juliet Stevenson, who has narrated many period audiobooks. No one does characters as distinctly and well as her.]

Friday, May 27, 2022

April & May Reading Notes

I didn't have very many books in April, so I thought to combine my April and May reading notes into one post. But holy cow! I read so many in May that this has turned out to be one long post. I did try to make every mini review as small as possible while still conveying a sense of the story. In some places, I have links to the full reviews. In many others, I couldn't link because the reviews are behind a paywall or they are supposed to be annonymous.

The Complete Maus: A Survivor's Tale by Art Spiegelman
Category: Graphic Novel
Comments: A banned book that I read for a book club. We are moms from our old school who've continued to meet every month over Zoom. We read anti-oppression books by authors of every diversity featuring their thoughts and ideas on their diversity. Our goal is to emerge from the discussions with more clarity, respect, and insight into the issues facing those marginalized from the dominant groups in America.

This graphic novel is the author's Polish father's Holocaust survivor story of his experiences as faithfully written down by his son, an American. The Jewish people are depicted as mice and the Nazis as cats. The book was a visceral shock because it is a real story and all in dialogue narration. There isn't any distance of formal nonfiction prose, and while the narrator is even keel, that makes his truths all the more horrifying. The author does not give the reader any breaks and demands that you keep up with the intensity of the story.

Love in Color: Mythical Tales from Around the World Retold by Bolu Babalola
Category: Literary Fiction Short Stories
Comments: This debut collection by Nigerian-British author Babalola has thirteen short folktales and myths with romantic elements of people largely from African legends focusing on Black empowerment. There are also story retellings from Greece and China. I adored this book and Babalola's writing and imaginative storytelling. In "Nefertiti," the Egyptian queen is a vigilante protecting women from patriarchal violence and oppression. In "Orin," both the protagonists are on terrible dates when they meet, and their easy conversation is a balm to their bruised spirits. "Ọṣun" is a Yoruba new adult love triangle tale, "Naleli" is a Lesothoian YA friends-to-lovers tale, and "Siya" is another warrior fantasy. Here is an example of Babalola's writing, which is why I adore this collection.

In those swim meets, she focused on the sound of the water smacking against her skin like a hand against the taut hide of a talking drum. Her swimming became a dance to a rhythm she was creating with the water. With each hip switch a hand sliced through the water till she was no longer just a body among bodies within a false aquatic body, tiled and sterile. No, she was the body, the only body, vibrant and heavy breathing. By the time the music stopped, she was over the finish line, alone. All they saw was an excellent athlete; only she knew that she was a dancer.

Book Lovers by Emily Henry
Category: Contemporary Romance
Comments: This spring has seen quite a few contemporary romance titles set in the publishing world. This one is about a literary agent shown as a "shark," and an editor who turned down her star client's previous book. They meet in a small town where her client has based her novels. He now wants to acquire her client's next book and they have to work together with the high maintenance author. I thoroughly enjoyed this book and loved Henry's writing style and characterization. [My Review]

A Scot is Not Enough by Gina Conkle
Category: Historical Romance
Comments: It was surprising how much I liked this book. In this sharp, brilliant Georgian romance, a Scottish Jacobite forever changes the trajectory of an upright English barrister’s life. It is a tale of political adversaries who are beguiled with each other in spite of everything pulling them apart. The mystery of the sgian-dubh adds intrigue, but it is Conkle’s prose and character work that make this romance so compelling. [My Review]

Good Morning, Love by Ashley Coleman
Category: Contemporary Romance
Comments: This is more women's fiction and the heroine's journey than romance though the happy-for-now ending is convincing. I learned so much by reading this book. It brims with authentic details of how music records are produced, how artists are discovered, and the life of a megastar from music industry professional Ashley M. Coleman. The hero is an R&B artist who has made it to the big leagues. The heroine works with artists at a creative agency, and in her spare time, she moonlights as a songwriter. She hopes to make it big in the industry. They meet because her boss is his publicist.

All Fired Up by Dylan Newton
Category: Contemporary Romance
Comments: I really liked this book. The heroine is a publicist at a publisher and frenetically juggles important authors. To-do lists are her superpower and her kryptonite. She moonlights as a ballet teacher. But stress is causing her insomnia and panic attacks, so she takes a leave of abscence and moves to her grandmother's small town to relax and help her grandmother. The hero is an ex-Marine, who now embodies a laidback surfer dude vibe. He really woos her with all his sweetness and patience. (CW: eating disorder, PTSD, survivor's guilt). [My Review]

The Accidental Pinup by Danielle Jackson
Category: Contemporary Romance
Comments: This is a fun, flirty look at the modeling and photography of lingerie. The protagonists are rival photographers competing for the same assignments. However, as a Black female photographer, she finds herself losing out to him repeatedly. She wants to photograph a national ad campaign so when she finds herself demoted to modeling with him being the photographer, it is the last straw...and the start of their relationship. There is a lot of groveling involved in the end.

From the Jump by Lacie Waldon
Category: Contemporary Romance
Comments: The coolest thing about this book is that part of it is set on a South African safari. I chose the book based on that and also because I had simiarly chosen her previous book, which was set on the Galápagos islands. This is a friends-to-lovers story of a traumatized heroine and a sweetheart of a hero, who also had a difficult childhood. She betrays his trust and there is much atonement for her in the end, and how their relationship survives is the heart of the story. (CW: unsheltered youth)

Lucie Yi is Not a Romantic by Lauren Ho
Category: Contemporary Romance
Comments: Frank talk about monthly cycles, IVF, and money are part of an unconventional co-parenting agreement in Malaysian author Ho’s sensitive portrayal of two people’s deep desire to be parents, but not being able to go the usual route of love and children with a committed partner. The story is set in Singapore and deals with a happy-for-now story of romance between the protagonists, temptation from her ex, and Singaporean society's disapprobation of a child out of wedlock. Ho skillfully applies humor to heighten and soften heartbreaking truths. [My Review]

For Butter or Worse by Erin La Rosa
Category: Contemporary Romance
Comments: This is an enemies-to-lovers story of a celebrity chef and the owner of a chain of family restaurants who are acrimonious co-hosts of a television cooking show. A flame-out is followed by unexpected, but well-publicized, almost snogging. Oops! Now, they are required to fake date to save their reputations. Under the breezy premise is a story of low self-esteem, mental health challenges, financial worries, and rediscovering who they are and who they want to be. Well done! (CW: panic attacks)

The Knight's Tempting Ally by Ella Matthews
Category: Medieval Romance
Comments: How I love a well-researched, well-executed medieval romance. This is a good example of that. She is the plain middle daughter with beuatiful sisters who has been repeatedly told that she is unmarriageable. In her teens, she was falsely beguiled by a man whom she thought loved her and wanted to marry her, so gave him her virginity, only to have him laugh at her and spurn her. She has convinced herself that she is destined to the nunnery. A good medieval usually has heavy politics as does this one. He is one of the King's Knights and has sworn to protect him and his reign. His childhood was tragic and he is "married" to his knight brothers. They meet at the king's court where there are rumblings over war with France. Thanks to Wendy Crutcher for recommending this.

Stirring up Love by Chandra Blumberg
Category: Contemporary Romance
Comments: I really admired the hero for seeking therapy to help him cope with his anxiety-riddled childhood of homelessnes and foster homes. He is still living in temporary housing and working every hour he can get as a chef, but he has big dreams. He wants to open a culinary school for those people society would sooner forget so they have a chance at a better future. She has grown up thinking she was always second-best but she works hard and has big dreams. She wants her small town to become a retail and entertainment hub. She is prickly and caring; he is kind and sweet—a wonderful enemies-to-lovers relationship. (CW: unsheltered youth, foster homes)

A Country Escape by Katie Fforde
Category: Contemporary Romance
Comments: Having grown up reading farm books by Enid Blyton, I jumped at the chance to read a romance set in the English farming countryside. The best thing about the book is how a newbie chef from London develops as a farmer managing hereditary livestock and selling the milk. She has innovative ways to make the broken down farm profitable through supper clubs and learning to make cheese to sell. She is on probation for a year. If she can make a go of the farm, then her elderly relative will let her inherit it. Of course, there is a dastardly villain relative who also wants the farm, and he comes in twirling his mustache. Then there is the wonderfully kind neighbor who is so easy on the eyes but with whom she is supposed to be at daggers drawn, according to her elderly relative. Instead, she is as drawn to him as he is to her. Fforde is talented in detailing her setting. You feel like you are on that farm with the heroine facing the challenges and experiencing the joys. If you're someone who enjoys the English countryside, this is a story not to be missed.

From Chai to Laddoos, From Bindis to Saris, From Dances to Epics, Here are Five South Asian Tales
Category: Children's Picture Books
[My Reviews]
—Ganesha's Sweet Tooth by Sanjay Patel & Emily Haynes, illustrated by Sanjay Patel
—Chaiwala! by Priti Birla Maheshwari, illustrated by Ashley Barron
—A Sari for Ammi by Mamta Nainy, illustrated by Sandhya Prabhat
—Dancing in Thatha's Footsteps by Srividya Venkat, illustrated by Kavita Ramchandran
—Bindu's Bindis by Supriya Kelkar, illustrated by Parvati Pillai

Five Picture Books to Celebrate Eid with Your Children
Category: Children's Picture Books
[My Reviews]
—One Wish: Fatima al-Fihri and the World's Oldest Univeristy by M.O. Yuksel, illustrated by Mariam Quraishi
—Crescent Moons and Pointed Minarets: A Muslim Book of Shapes by Hena Khan, illustrated by Mehrdokht Amini
—One Sun and Countless Stars: A Muslim Book of Numbers by Hena Khan, illustrated by Mehrdokht Amini
—My Name is Bana by Bana Alabed, illustrated by Nez Riaz
—Beautifully Me by Nabel Noor, illustrated by Nabi H. Ali

Tuesday, April 5, 2022

March Reading Notes

I am VERY excited to report that I have been accepted to study philosophy at the University of Oxford through their Department of Continuing Education. It's a four-year-long certificate program with most of the courses done online and one on campus (so cool!). The application process was rigorous and highly competitive. I agonized over the two essays I had to write, and I sweated through my socks and shirt during the Zoom interview for which I had practiced and practiced. So the acceptance was amazing. Many, many thanks to the three people who wrote me references and to my family for their advice and help in making my dream from when I was seventeen a reality decades later.

Had a lovely conversation with Stephan Lee on the world of K-Pop and his two books, K-Pop Confidential and K-Pop Revolution. Adriana Herrera is always a pleasure to talk to about her work, particularly, her newest, Caribbean Heiress in Paris.

Portrait of a Thief by Grace D. Li
Category: General Fiction
Comments: This was my favorite book this month. Museums all over the western world proudly showcase priceless art stolen from other countries through war and conquest, a side benefit of colonialism and imperialism. Many of those countries want their art and cultural identity back, but museums refuse to part with the pieces. Portrait of a Thief is based on the true story of Chinese art that has gone missing from western museums. The book is in response to the question: Who’s stealing the art? In this book, Stanford medical student and debut novelist, Grace D. Li, spins an intricate heist story juxtaposed with a pitch-perfect depiction of the complex nature of immigrant identity. [My Review]

By the Book by Jasmine Guillory
Category: Contemporary Romance
Comments: A starred review from me for Booklist. This winter and spring has seen multiple romance novels set in the publishing world like this one. What could a people-pleasing editorial assistant, one of very few African Americans working for this publishing house who is still living with her parents, have in common with a rich bad boy known for bar fights, fast cars, and dating supermodels? [My Review]

Kingscastle by Sophia Holloway
Category: Traditional Regency Romance
Comments: When I first set sight on the cover of Kingscastle, I knew I had to read it. I was pleased to see that the story lived up to the promise of Lee Avison’s cover design. Much in the same style as the Traditional Regency novels of the 1980s, Kingscastle is a quiet, character-driven story set in the countryside, complete with an imposing castle, a local vicar, a small village, torrents of rain, and a harridan of a beldame. I was tickled pink to discover that Holloway had given the hero the title “Athelney,” which is the name of the village that is best known for once being the fortress hiding place of my favorite king Alfred the Great. Holloway also writes medieval murder mysteries, and I wonder if she is just as fascinated with King Alfred as I am. [My Review]

Sari, Not Sari by Sonya Singh
Category: Contemporary Romance
Comments: Set in the world of Bollywood dancing, mehndi, and matchmaking aunties, this is a debut novel by Sonya Singh, a former entertainment reporter turned PR expert. This is a story of an Indian American woman who wasn't brought up steeped in her culture and finds that she is really missing that part of her identity. In a bid to regain that aspect of herself, she conspires with her client to attend his family's wedding while helping him break up with his girlfriend through her relationship breakup company.

Rules for Engaging the Earl by Janna MacGregor
Category: Historical Romance
Comments: This is a story of childhood lovers being offered a second chance. As teens, both the hero and heroine were in love with each other, but he is tempted by the war office's appeal to his patriotism. Badly injured and scarred, he returns from the war a changed man, wary, distrustful, and convinced he will not make a good husband, father, or friend. She made a bad first marriage, and is now widowed with a baby daughter to raise. She asks her old friend to marry her trusting in his integrity and honor and is determined to be a supportive wife to him and make her second marriage a success. She believes that beneath the crusty exterior lies that generous-hearted boy she used to know and sets her heart on peeling back the layers to find him.

A Song Begins by Mary Burchell
Category: Vintage Contemporary Romance
Comments: I read this book as part of the Saturday Book Club read for this month. We had a controversial discussion with Burchell working very well for some readers and not at all for others. I read these vintage contemporary books as historical romance, so the social mores and culture makes sense. This is one of those rare books that gets the music world right. As a choral singer, I delighted in all the music details of the heroine who is plucked from an obscure English village by a world famous conductor who invests his time and effort in training her, while also paying for her housing and food and further study with another teacher in London. It is a patriarchical book that starts out with a huge power imbalance. To me, the power starts to balance out towards the end with the promise that the process will continue in their marriage. I enjoy Burchell's writing.

Under the Stars of Paris by Mary Burchell
Category: Vintage Contemporary Romance
Comments: After finishing the above book, I got into a conversation about Burchell that led to this book, and I was immediately tempted to re-read it. It, too, has the same power imbalance of wealthy, careworn, successful man and ingegue young woman. This is set in the fashion world, and like the above book is very well researched. Fans of Project Runway will appreciate the story. She is plucked out of a Parisian street by a fashion house as a stand-in for their injured top model. She instinctively know how to walk and carry off the clothes and makes a success as a model. He is the creative director of the fashion house and she becomes his creation. There's a secondary love interest who would make a plausible partner, but she is only interested in the seemingly unttainable hero.

Akbar and Birbal by Amita Sarin
Category: Children's Nonfiction & Fiction
Comments: I loved this book. Set in 16th century India, the stories are a mixture of real historical tales and fables of Akbar, the Mughal Emperor of India, and his trusted advisor, Birbal. Akbar was known as a benevolent ruler, bright and kind. Birbal was known as a brilliant, savvy vizier. The author has organized her book with a historical story followed by 1-3 fables based on that story. In each story, either citizens approach Akbar with problems or Akbar himself comes up with problems that Birbal is required to solve, which he does in witty, clever ways.

Shahrzad & the Angry King by Nahid Kazemi
Category: Children's Picture Book
Comments: This is another marvelous book in the pantheon of great books by celebrated family-owned publisher, Enchanted Lion Books. Drawing on her Persian heritage and expertise in visual art, Nahid Kazemi spins a magical story of her homeland. Storytelling is the backbone of our civilization, and throughout the ages, it has always been a powerful method of enacting societal change. Who does not know of Scheherazade and her one thousand and one stories to beguile her husband and stop him from executing her and fall in love with her? Her stories, such as Aladdin’s Lamp, Sinbad the Sailor, Ali Baba and the Forty Thieves, and others live on to this day. In Shahrzad & the Angry King, Kazemi brings Scheherazade to life in the guise of a young girl named Shahrzad who loves to collect stories from the world around her. Her goal is to really understand people at a deep level. [My Review]

Kenny's Window by Maurice Sendak
Category: Children's Book
Comments: A standout line from the book: "A wish is halfway to wherever you want to go." Beautiful! My copy is a first printing from my library from 1956 and it has been barely read. Sendak's Where the Wild Things Are is stupendously popular, so I assumed that people would be scouring his backlist and forelist and everything would've gone back for multiple printings. So it is curious that this book from 1956 is still pristine. Looks like a hidden gem. The story is about a boy who wakes up from a dream remembering everything including seven philosophical questions he has to find answers to. He answers them in his own vastly creative ways with small parables. Do read philosopher Maria Popova's wonderful review of the book. She says everything that I might ever want to say better.

The Great Philosophers: The Lives and Ideas of History's Greatest Thinkers by Stephen Law
Category: Nonfiction
Comments: Superb book that explains the major philosophical ideas of the western world distilled into small bites. It links back and forth between ideas as contemporary and later philosophers dispute established theories. Each piece has a bio of a philosopher and explains the basic theories along with examples. Very thorough treatment for understanding by lay people. It has Buddhism and Confucianism in the beginning, but that is a bit of a pretense to be international, because there aren't other non-western philosophers later on. Discounting those two first entries, it is an excellent resource for an armchair philosopher.